Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My Southwestern Adventures

I'm back from my vacation.  Boo!  Now I have to buckle down and figure out what to do with the rest of my life.  Before I do that though, I'll bore anyone who bothers to read this about how I spent a wonderful week in Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and many points in between.

Before I start recounting my tale, I want to give a shout out to Natural Habitat Adventures.  They are truly a topnotch tour company.  I had a bit of sticker shock at the price of this trip, but it was worth every penny.  They saw to our every need, took us to as many interesting sites as possible, and were extremely knowledgeable about the not only the flora and fauna of the area, but the geology as well.  If you are considering any sort of nature tour, give NatHab a try!

So let's get started on the trip.

Day 1 - We had to be up at an ungodly hour to catch our taxi to the airport for a 7:45 AM flight to Salt Lake City.  This would be a recurring pattern with our trip.  There were no major events on the first leg of our trip to Salt Lake City.  We made our connection to St. George in good time.  Whenever I'm in Salt Lake City, I often wish I could stay and look around a bit.  It looks like a lovely city - Mormons and all.

As our plane began to descend in St. George, it felt as if we were flying to nowhere.  I saw no civilization at all.  The biggest sign of human life I saw was a junkyard.  We seemed to be landing in a courtyard rather than an airport.  I'm not sure I saw any other planes next to the terminal.

Once we were inside the terminal, I was impressed.  I even said to Kevin that I thought it was the most beautiful terminal I had ever seen.  It was built quite recently (the airport used to be closer to town) and had the look of a sleek visitor's center. 

We were supposed to meet our guide Eric at the baggage claim.  At such a tiny airport, it wasn't hard to find him.  He knew who we were right away.  It seems that many of the others in our group had been on Natural Habitat tours with him before.  It felt a little weird that everyone seemed to know each other.  At the airport we met about half of our group: Randy from the L.A. area, Diane and Laura from New York, Don from Cincinnati, and Pandora from New Jersey. Once we collected our bags, Eric drove us into the town of St. George where his wife Melissa, our other guide was waiting for us.  (The two of them met as NatHab guides.  Is that the ultimate meet cute or what?)  Again, once we were out of the van, Melissa knew exactly who we were.

We were staying at the Green Gate Village Bed & Breakfast.  It's not a single home, but a complex of historic cottages.   The property is filled with all kinds of antique curiosities.

We were starving, so we took a walk through town looking for lunch and to explore the area a bit.  St. George is a charming town.  

 We did manage to find a place for lunch.  Walking around was pretty much a wasted effort.  This was Utah on a Sunday.  Most stores and restaurants were closed.  Since it was really hot out, I decided to take refuge in the pool.

Before dinner Eric and Melissa called a meeting for everyone to give us an overview of everything we would see on the trip.  Here we met the rest of our group.  In addition to those folks we met at the airport we met Nancy from San Diego, Kathy and Dwayne from Florida, Richard from the L.A. area, and Irene from Maine.

Kevin observed that we seemed to be the youngest members of the group.  The next youngest person on the tour after Kevin was probably a good 4-5 years older.  That made me the real baby of the group.

We had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant called the Painted Pony (how can a restaurant with that name be bad) and got ready for the adventure ahead.

Day 2 - We started at the cliffs of Parowan.  There are two very interesting artifacts there.  The first is a set of dinosaur footprints.  The other is the ancient carvings in the rock.

There is a notch in rocks that is believed to have been used by the ancients to help them track the seasons and movements of the sun.  The petroglyphs seem to relate to the movements of the sun through the cliffs.  One of them in particular, known as the "zipper" looks as if it is a crude map of the notch and the surrounding area, with lines marking the days showing the sun's movement through the seasons.  Most of the other markings don't seem to have any obvious meaning, but they're very interesting.

From Parowan we finally entered the Colorado Plateau and went to the top of the formation known as the Grand Staircase where various strata of rock formation make their way down from the Markagunt to Bryce, to Zion to the Vermilion Cliffs and up to the Kaibab Plateau before descending into the Grand Canyon.

We started at Markagunt, getting the view from the top.  There is a lot of basalt here due to prehistoric lava flows.

From here we drove to Bryce and entered that park.  Our lodgings were a bit more traditional this time.  The Bryce Canyon Lodge looks like a hybrid of summer camp and a motel.  We had no complaints about our room.  It was clean, climate-controlled, fairly large, and included a small patio.  It just looked a bit long in the tooth.

After settling in, Eric and Melissa took us on our first walk to get the views and photos.

After dinner we went out again to Sunrise Point to watch the sunset.  (Sunset Point was too crowded and the views of both sunrise and sunset are great at both points anyway.)

Day 3 - We got up early to watch the sunrise from Sunset Point.  (Do we see a theme here?)  It was as beautiful as sunset the night before.

After breakfast we went on a group hike to Rainbow Ridge, which overlooks Kodachrome Basin, the Navajo Sandstone Canyon, and the interestingly named formation, Molly's Nipple. It is the highest elevation in Bryce, measuring at almost 10,000'.   We hiked the Bristlecone Loop trail.  This is peppered with pine trees that are thousands of years old.

We visited another formation called Natural Bridge.  It's not a bridge though.  A bridge is eroded by water.  This is an arch, which is eroded chemically or through other weathering processes.

After lunch the group had the option of either doing a wildlife drive with Melissa, or a more strenuous hike around the rim with Eric.  Kevin chose the former and I chose the latter.  We hiked to a spot called Inspiration Point, whose name reminds me of Happy Days.  Wasn't that where Fonzie and the gang went to make out?

The trail sometimes had some steep drop offs.  If someone were to ask me if I would recommend Bryce (or Zion or the Grand Canyon for that matter), I would recommend it conditionally as it is not a place for people who are prone to vertigo or have issues with heights.  I will say that as the days went on, I felt more sure-footed and ledges bothered me less.

 We took more amphitheater shots, but also observed the flora and fauna.

After dinner Eric and Melissa booked a campsite for the evening and we had a campfire.  They provided the makings of s'mores (using those Lindt squares)along with coffee, hot chocolate, and a bottle of Baileys.  Probably our best dessert all week.

Day 4 - Melissa led us on a walk down through the amphitheater.  I think this was the best trail we did all week.  There is something really special about looking up at the hoodoos from the ground up instead of looking down on them.  Also, from the ground you see so many caves and bridges and other interesting nooks. 

It was pretty exhausting climbing up and down the switchback trails.  This is what I meant about people prone to vertigo!

We left Bryce after the hike and headed toward Zion.  We stopped for lunch on the road at a place called the Buffalo Grill, which was part of a larger resort.  The resort had horses and farm animals, and best of all, a miniature horse who had a foal less than two weeks ago. 

I tried befriending the mother to see if she would let me get near the foal.  She just kept eating grass and ignored me.  While I petted his mother, the foal approached me on his own.  He was a little hesitant to let me touch him at first, but once I started scratching his withers, he quickly became my friend.  He liked the withers rub so much that he decided he wanted more and turned his butt to me so I could scratch more of his body.  It was like petting a horse-shaped, medium-sized dog.

We made it to Zion in the afternoon. Completely different landscape here with the Virgin River cutting through massive rock cliffs.

Getting in and out of Zion can be frustrating.  The only way in is through a cliffside tunnel.   The tunnel is narrow, so those giant tour buses and mortorcoaches have to go through one at a time.  This means the rangers have to stop traffic on both sides so one can go through.  I have seen some pretty long backups because of this.

One smart thing Zion does to control the traffic jams within the park is that it doesn't allow people to drive in the park.  You park your car at the visitor's center and a shuttle bus drives around to all of the trail heads and the lodge.  There are also shuttles into the park from the nearby town of Springdale (where we were staying).

That afternoon, Eric gave those who wanted a challenge were offered a chance to go up to the Overlook Trail.  This was another one of those "Don't-do-it-if-you're-prone-to-vertigo" trails.  We had some steep hikes with a few drop-offs (drop offs had railings and the climbs had stairs though).  We hiked to the top of the Grand Arch, where we were rewarded with a view of the West Temple and Altar of Sacrifice.

 Zion is a much lower elevation than Bryce and it was HOT out.  After the hike we headed to our hotel.  This was the best place we stayed all week, Flanagan's Inn..  It doesn't look like much from the road, but is a nice property and best of all, had a pool. It was a lovely pool with plenty of gardens surrounded it and had The Watchman of Bryce overlooking it.   As soon as we were in our room, the only thing I unpacked was my bathing suit.  I hit the pool, found the deep end - and jumped.

Before dinner Eric and Melissa had a little cocktail party in the hotel lobby that featured local wines.  Everyone was a little tipsy by the time dinner started.  I hope the restaurant wasn't too disappointed that no one ordered alcohol.

Day 5 - The morning started out with an easy walk along the Virgin River.  Eric spent a lot of time stopping the walk to discuss plants or animals along the way.  I kept walking ahead and between the fact that I kept walking ahead and he kept stopping, I ended up pretty well separated from the group (as did Diane and Don who are extremely avid photographers and were off doing their own picture-seeking).  The walk terminates in the Narrows, a water-filled river-canyon.  I had seen photos of The Narrows and wanted very badly to explore it, although it was not part of the itinerary and it's a long hike.

Melissa had said that if we wanted to attempt at least part of it, we would need closed-toed water shoes and a hiking pole.  I had neither of those things.  She also warned that at the start of the Narrows there is a spot where a storm created a hole in the river bottom, which would make the water at least waist deep. I wasn't terribly equipped for that either.

I was curious though about the hike and tired of sitting at trail's end waiting for the group.  I saw other walkers wading across the river to get a better view upstream.  I had my Tevas with me and as for the hiking pole - well, years of dancing and equestrian sports have given me a fairly well-developed sense of balance.  I attempted to cross the river and go up as far as I could.  Other people were crossing the river less prepared than I was.

The water was freezing cold.  As the photo shows, it wasn't easy to get my footing.  I managed to get across and walk on land a little longer and then crossed again until I ran out of dry land to walk on and the path became all water.  I knew that to hike the Narrows I would need more than just the pole and the shoes but also polypropylene socks and a pair of drysuit pants (as most of the hikers I saw going into The Narrows had).  I got as far as I could and stayed dry and reasonably warm, and was rewarded with a lovely view and some nice photos.

When the rest of the group caught up, Melissa wanted to know if I had ventured the deep part since I looked dry.  I was pretty pleased with myself regardless.  My feet were tingling with cold even twenty minutes after I put my socks and boots back on.

After lunch we had another hiking option.  Eric took us to the Emerald Pools.  There are three pools, the lower, middle, and upper.  These pools are supposed to cover part of the cliff and spill over the edge into waterfalls.  The winter and spring have been dry, so there wasn't much water for that.  It was a pretty hike though and another really tough climb.  The upper pools were particularly difficult.

We didn't have a whole lot of time before dinner, but after another hot hike, I made sure I had some quality time at the pool back in the hotel.  I was thinking another walk in the Virgin River would have also been nice...

That night, Eric and Melissa's friend Bettina, a Native American flute expert, gave us a talk about the history and culture of the area and a music demo.  Melissa joined in as well with a duet.  She even handed out flutes and tried to get us all to play something.  It was an interesting evening.  Bettina joined us for dinner and she was an interesting person to hang out with.

Day 6- We had one more morning hike, although not a crazy-early one.  Eric took one group out for some early morning cliff photography.  I went with Melissa to one of the gentle walking trails from some bird watching.  It's funny.  When you're looking for birds, it doesn't seem as if you see any many as you do when you're hiking for other purposes.  I did get a nice photo of a house wren and the morning sun on the West Temple and The Watchman was quite beautiful.

When we left Zion in the mid morning, we were able to see some bighorn sheep.  I took a photo through a scope.  They're pretty cool.

Time to pack up again and head to the Grand Canyon.  This was almost a day-long drive.  Our first stop on the way was to a site on the Vermilion Cliffs where there is a California Condor conservation program happening.  One of the people from the organization gave us a talk on the history of the condor preservation movement.  We could see some of the condors soaring over the cliffs from time to time.  They also have a release pen in the cliffs where many of the birds hang out.  We were able to watch them through a spotting scope.

We had a picnic lunch at Jacob Lake, about an hour away from the Grand Canyon entrance.  My sun hat has a border of flowers around it.  The picture seemed to fool a certain hummingbird.  I was sitting there eating when I felt something peck and flutter at my head.  Freaked me out at first and then I didn't want the bird to go away.

Once we made it to the Grand Canyon, Eric and Melissa took us to Imperial Point to look out and get our first photos.  The first thing I did when I approached the rim was shout, "BOBBY!  CINDY!"  (I had been wanting to do that since we booked this trip.)

We headed to our rooms.  The Grand Canyon Lodge is quite rustic.  The main lodge where they have the restaurant and shops is lovely.  The accommodations are log cabins.  Where we stayed each cabin had two tiny rooms with thin walls and no AC.  Our room barely fit a full-sized bed, a twin bed, and a desk along with the bathroom.  I noticed later that night that there were nicer cabins with more hotel-y type rooms with finished walls and bigger rooms, but those are not very easy to book according to Eric and Melissa.

They have a really captive audience here because there are no other places to stay on the north rim.  The nearest lodgings I saw on the road were at least 30 minutes away.  There are also no restaurants in that area.  You have to eat in the dining room at the lodge or the deli there.

We went out for a sunset walk that evening.  We were going to hike to a particular point, but storm clouds were gathering and there was even some lightning.  We stayed on the back porch of the lodge (which has great views) and watched the clouds roll in.  We saw an amazing rainbow while we waited.  The storm never did come though other than a few sprinkles of rain.

We went to bed early that night because we had a very early morning ahead of us.

Day 6 - We had to meet Eric and Melissa at 4 AM.  They were driving us to Cape Royal, a viewing point that is about 45 minutes from the lodge.  Kevin and I had initially thought we would just jump out of bad at 3:45 and join them as is, but our next-door neighbors set an alarm for 3:00, so we decided to just get up and take showers and get ready like a regular morning.

We were rewarded with an incredible sunrise, so I would say it was worth the effort of getting up.  It wasn't even as cold as I feared it would be.  We had a bonus while we were out there as we saw a peregrine falcon hunt.  He was flying around and suddenly dove down into the canyon.  That's not something you get to see every day.

When it was over Eric and Melissa set up breakfast for us at the rim with champagne.  We could not have asked for a better morning.

On our way back to the lodge we had a chance to see some ancient Native American ruins as well.  Melissa also gave us a demo on addle addle throwing.  I gave it a try and decided I'm more of a gatherer than an hunter.

We returned to the lodge for a couple of hours to nap and relax before lunch.  After lunch they presented us with two more options for afternoon activities.  You could take a quiet wildlife stroll with Melissa or a more strenuous woodland hike with Eric.  Kevin and I both went out with Eric. 

We went on a wooded trail that would occasionally open up to views of the canyon.  We saw several birds on the hike including a pygmy owl, a flicker, and a red-tailed hawk.

We had an early dinner so we could have another post-dinner sunset session.  This time we were able to hike to the viewing points we wanted to see the night before.  I took my last shots of the sun going down over the Grand Canyon.   Sad to think this was the last night.

Day 8 - Time to depart.  Not a very eventful day.  On our way to St. George we drove through Colorado City where Warren Jeffs and his FLDS cult used to reside.  It was interesting to see the high walls built around some of the houses.  Many houses had been abandoned since the big scandal.

We said our goodbyes and boarded our planes.  We had no issues with our flights, but it was a very long day since we had a two-and-a-half hour layover in Salt Lake City.  We didn't arrive home until close to midnight.

Now we dream of our next trip with Nathab.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds amazing. You're so intrepid and the pictures are gorgeous. You should blow them up to poster size and sell them!