Saturday, September 1, 2012

Travel to American West continued

 Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon National Parks

In my last post I talked about driving from Denver to Bryce Canyon. As we were hoping we reached the park before sunset. As we entered the park we delightfully displayed our yearly national park pass. I bought the pass from National Park Service earlier in the month as I thought it would make the most sense as we were going to visit five national parks.
Rock formation on the way to Bryce Canyon
After entering the park we stopped by the visitor center to find out what we would be able to see within whatever daylight left. We also wanted to know what could do the next day. We gathered all the information we needed to make a tighter plan for Bryce Canyon so that we could leave for Zion Canyon the next day as soon as we can. As I mentioned in previous blog we only had one evening and a day for Bryce and Zion!

It had been planned that we would go to the vista points like Sunset point, Bryce point and Inspiration points in the evening. In the next morning we would visit the Sunrise point, take a walk along rim trail from Sunrise to Sunset point and go down to the canyon using Navajo loop. I also wanted to drive to Rainbow point or at least to Fairview point on the southern part of the park. I knew that driving to the southern part was probably not going to be possible. In fact, the visitor center personnel also suggested the same looking at our time constraint. We would do that if we make another trip to Bryce. Please click on Bryce Canyon Guide to refer to details on the park including attractions, trails etc. These park guides are very well thought out and very helpful. These are travelers best friend for enjoying a park the best way possible. I recommend going over the park newsletter before you arrive at the park.
After a quick look at the guide and map we reached the Sunset point in no time as it was nearby. What we have seen cannot be described in words - the sight was unbelievable. I felt like I could see the same thing again and again. We got busy identifying the things we read in the newsletter. The most important attribute of the formation is the hoodoos. I didn't know what was the meaning of hoodoo. Looking at the guide we found that a hoodoo is a pinnacle or odd-shaped rock left standing by the forces of erosion. We also learned that technically, Bryce is not a canyon because canyons are primarily carved by flowing water – a stream or a river. Naturally acidic rainwater dissolves limestone, making the rounded edges of hoodoos, but the freezing and thawing of water does most of the sculpting at Bryce Canyon. Once the concept of hoodoo was clear we sure found lot of them. We were also interested in the location Thor's hammer, we found that too - great excitement.
At Sunset point many photo enthusiasts were standing with their tripod and huge cameras to capture dying lights of Sun casting on the canyon. They suggest to arrive at this point about an hour before sunset time. We were just a little late. We could still enjoy the effects of changing lights on the multicolored rocks. We also got busy capturing the moments on camera. It was hard to capture such natural beauty on camera. I felt only a painter can do justice to this. 
Hoodoos in different light conditions and Thor's hammer
We walked around the place and walked down a few feet on Navajo loop to see what's in store the next morning if we decide to walk on the loop. After spending some more time there we decided  to proceed to Bryce point which was promising more visual delight.
Bryce point is at elevation 8300 feet. It was a neat feeling walking at that altitude. From Bryce point we experienced the scenic vistas of the full amphitheater. It felt like we were at amphitheater of a great emperor. I wish I were a poet.
View of Amphitheater at Bryce Point
We were humbled by nature's beauty. We wondered around to absorb as much as we can. There were trails we could see which go down to the canyon. It would have been really nice to walk on those trails. But it was quickly getting dark as you can see from the pictures. While walking on the rim we learnt about canyon's namesake, Ebenezer Bryce, who settled in the valley just below the canyon in 1870. He along with his wife lived in the area for few years and aided in settlement of nearby region.
After enjoying the view for some more time we headed towards Inspiration point, but it was dark by then. We just saw the location and decided to call it a day. The Bryce view lodge we stayed that night was very close by. On our way to the lodge we were reading that one could experience very clear sky at night and could even see milky way from Inspiration point. We were very tired by then and decided to go to bed with excitement of seeing great things with  early lights of sun.

May 26, we woke up fairly early and wanted to see sunrise at Sunrise point. We also wanted to walk along the rim trail from Sunrise point to Sunset point. Soon our excitement was dampened by drizzling rain and temperature in lower 40s. I checked the weather for the day, temperature was never going go above upper 40s - with wind it was going to feel even cooler. Talk about end of May weather, we were expecting close to summer temperature. Coming from far away we could not be sitting tight for weather to warm up. Luckily we were carrying light coats and wearing clothes in layers we left for the park.
At Sunrise point sight was even more beautiful than the last evening as different shades of early sunlight was enriching the rock formation. Here is one for you.
Rocks changing color as morning light changes
Soon rain stopped and possibly rays of sun made the air little warmer. May be the beauty of nature made us forget the cold a bit. However, as planned we walked along the rim from Sunrise to Sunset point, it was just 1/2 a mile very easy walk. It was probably the best 1/2 mile trail we walked. Color of the rocks were changing rather frequently as different shades were forming on rocks from sunlight. I forgot to mention that before starting the rim walk we walked a bit on Queens Garden trail. Seeing the tall rocks from close was a great experience. 
Then came the decision to walk down the Navajo loop. It was a 1.3 mile long loop and 550 feet of altitude difference. Trail length was not a problem, problem was in altitude difference. I also knew that if we did that walk we would not be able to drive towards southern part of the park due to time shortage. Well, without pondering much we just started walking as Adi was very much interested. Little did he knew how challenging it was going to be. It turned out that he was the one who suffered the most. To be fair, it was our first challenging walk in the trip. He did much better in challenging walks later in the trip. Getting back to loop, it was gorgeous walk down to the canyon. Once down at the canyon it was really very nice to see the tall rocks in full length. This canyon was not very deep, so walking down was not too hard - very much doable.
Sights going down to the canyon and coming up
While walking around in the canyon for some time we saw "Two bridges" and Thor's hammer. Even though these two points were key sights in that loop the overall loop was just beautiful. After spending about an hour at the canyon we started our ascend. We made sure we took small but frequent breaks. Still towards the end it was getting harder, but we made it.
After taking a short break we headed towards Paria view point and Inspiration point. There wasn't much more exciting to see at Paria view point. We didn't spend much time there and we went to Inspiration point. As this point we saw the amphitheater in daylight again. It was nice. 
It was time to say goodbye to Bryce Canyon. We left the park with a heavy heart as we wanted to spend more time there. Friends, plan on spending 2 days if you visit this park. Please click on the link Bryce Canyon pictures to see detailed pictures of his park. We stopped by at a gift shop cum Inn cum general store cum camping supply store called Ruby's Inn and general store. I wanted to mention this because in or around all the national parks they have stores like this. You would find pretty much everything you would need if you plan on spending days in the park. Even just as memento store this was great.

Without spending much time at this store we left Zion canyon because we wanted to reach its visitor center by 3:00 pm. Before I forget I must mention about an iPhone app I have downloaded during trip planning. This app called National Parks by National Geographic, click on the app-link to get to the app. This is an excellent app, very highly rated. I strongly recommend using this app if you have an iPhone/iPad/iTouch. Since we were in shortage of time we consulted this app quite a bit to make our plans and learn about interesting parts of different parks including how to visit etc.
In our drive to Zion Canyon I asked Sonali to read about the park so that we could maximally utilize our time at the park. Surely visitor center would be there to help, but it wouldn't hurt to know a few things before we reached.
I knew that UT-9 is a very scenic route, thankfully we would be driving on that road. UT-9 starts from Mount Carmel Junction. Even before mount carmel came we started getting glimpses of magnanimity of Zion Canyon. I was getting very happy for my decision to stop by at Bryce and Zion. First few miles on the scenic route it was quite regular, just like a regular state roads in remote Americas. As the park entrance was getting closer the big mountains made of rock became a familiar sight. The clear distinction between mountains in Bryce and Zion was Zion mountain looked made of really very solid rocks, on the other hand Bryce rock range was apparently based on loose rock. Close to park entrance grayish rock turned into red and gray rocks and soon more red than gray. As we entered through the park entrance the road asphalt turned from regular dark gray to mostly red. We thought that to make the park experience more attractive they must have mixed red stone powder in the asphalt. It felt really dramatic and great to drive on that red road.
I don't know how to describe the magnanimity of the mountain made of mostly red solid rock. Sometimes we were stopping at the vista points to enjoy the view closely. There was one very wide open area with arch like natural carving which reminded us of the Wheel well hotel in the Pixar movie Cars. We thought may be some of the set designs of that movie were inspired by this park. It was great seeing steep cliffs from close and driving on the road that was curvy and getting very narrow at times. We had to drive through a tunnel that was very long. At some regular distance they made large windows through which we could see the mountain. That kept us excited and driving through the tunnel was not boring. 
On UT-9 heading to the park
There were lot of cars going into the park even past 2:30 pm in the afternoon. So the drive was slow, but we couldn't complain as we were awestruck by the view. After driving little longer we saw a road that goes to Zion lodge, only park shuttle buses were allowed on that road in summer. The intersection was called Canyon Junction. We knew that we were very close to the visitor center. I would like to mention that in regular seasons one may need to park in Springdale (and take a free shuttle to reach the visitor center), which is just past the visitor center when driving from west. Luckily for us we found  a parking spot by the visitor center.
Without wasting much time we consulted the visitor center personnel what we could do within about 5 hours we have in the park. For details on the park's guide please click on Zion Canyon Guide.
We learned that only thing we can do is taking the shuttle along Zion Canyon scenic drive that we have seen earlier (the same road going to Zion lodge). We roughly identified the vista points we were going to get down at. But first thing first, we were going to go all the way to the end point, Temple of Sinawava, and watch for interesting vista points we were going to get down on our way back. Temple of Sinawava, the name sounded very mystic and interesting. We found that it's the entire northern end of the canyon, not just one peak. Sinawava is the name of a Paiute deity, known as Wolf God.
As the shuttle bus was started the bus driver put on the prerecorded description of the canyon and different vista points. It was quite informative, but we were more engrossed in the beauty outside. The first point that came was the Court of the patriarchs. We decided we would do a hike there on our way back. On the way saw the Zion lodge, we thought next time we visit the park we would try to stay at the lodge. Crossing the Grotto we passed Weeping rock and Big bend. We decided we would get down at Big bend and walk to Weeping rock as these two points were very close by. Shortly thereafter we reached our stop. 
Sharp rock wall good for rock climbing
The first sight at the stop was gorgeous. It took a bit of time for absorb the enormity of the place. We spent a bit of time by the bank of the river. It felt good before we started more than 2 mile easy Riverside walk (little over a mile one way). This paved trails follows the Virgin river along of a narrow canyon. This is one of the most popular trails in the park and it is wheelchair accessible. 
Walking on the Riverwalk trail
It was amazing to see sharp rock wall from close by. We were thinking it must paradise for rock climber. On the trail we found quite a few squirrels, we thought that was interesting to find them at that altitude. We also found some flora on the rocks.
The trail ended just as the surrounding canyon walls begun to close in. This was the point where the narrows begun. We saw some people walking on the river, we learnt that they went further on river through the narrows. We were sure that would be a great experience, we would like to go back for that adventurous walk in future. Special gear is needed to walk on the river and it should be available in Springdale if not bought in advance. We came back to the bus stop and headed back to the visitor center, surely we would stop by on the way at different vista points we shortlisted earlier.
First came Big bend. At this point we got to see bend in the Virgin with towering cliff above. We thought of walking on the bus route from Big bend to the next stop called Weeping rock so that we get to see the bend and the cliff from close by. While doing this walk we saw a few rock climbers climbing to the cliff and couple of them  were coming down. We never saw rock climbers before other than in movies, so it was very neat. 
Cliff at Big bend
On our way to Weeping rock we saw cacti and some beautiful flowers on the road. They were beautiful without any attention from anyone, mother nature were taking care of them.
At Weeping rock, dripping rocks supposedly have created hanging garden. But we didn't do the walk to see that. After spending some time there looking around we decided to take the shuttle back. The bus was very crowded by then and we dropped the idea of getting down at court of patriarchs and taking a hike. For detailed picture click on Zion Canyon pictures. This park does not have as much color variety as Bryce Canyon, but its worth was in its enormity. From Zion canyon guide it felt that there were lot more exploration, hiking to be done. We would get back here for 2 more days.
After reaching visitor center we decided to grab some dinner at Spingdale and leave for Jacob Lake Inn at Jacob Lake, Arizona. By the time we ordered and picked our dinner daylight started fading. So we had to rush so that we could reach Jacob Lake before it was totally dark. Jacob Lake Inn is suggested place to stay outside of Grand Canyon North rim. We had to drive back on UT-9, the scenic road. In fading light the beauty was different. Daylight gave us company more than half of the way to Jacob Lake Inn. Then it was pitch dark and bit scary because animals like deer started coming out on the road. We didn't want to hurt them, so we were very careful. At times we could notice at the last moment from the reflection of their eyes. Jacob Lake was not coming quick enough. We were beginning to get worried as GPS was showing only a couple of minutes left to destination and no road sign of Jacob Lake. Finally Jacob Lake came with a gas station and the Inn only. Sigh of relief !! 
The Inn was really nice and theme was matching Grand Canyon. No doubt we crashed to bed soon after checking in. In the next phase I will tell story of Grand Canyon and Vegas area. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Travel to American West

I am a traveler, I mean I love to travel for seeing places. I normally do not like to go to the same place many times. Surely there are times it happened. Lot of times journey is the destination for me. The beauty of our World and unknown suspense hidden beneath always excite me to explore, to see new places.
Since my childhood I have been fascinated by travel related novels, writings. Chander Pahar written by great Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay had captured my imagination growing up. It is based on traveling to Mount Kilimanjanro in Africa. I guess I became a traveler the day I was done reading that book. It still fascinates me, I wish I could go on the same journey as the protagonist went on in the novel. Pradeep Sinha translated the novel in English under the title Moon Mountain; I haven't read the translation myself.

You can probably tell I am not a writer. I have been thinking about writing about my travel experience though. It did not happen yet partly because I am lazy in writing and partly because there are so many things available on the net these days. Whenever I thought of writing travelogue I wondered would my writing going to add any value to the fellow travelers or to fellow explorers ? May be it would not, may be expressing my experience including my planning would help others when they embark on a journey. So here I am, writing my very first travelogue. I will start with my most recent one first - Journey to American West. May be I will write my travel from the past later. I thank my wife Sonali and elder son Adi for giving me feedback and for being the first readers. I also thank my little boy Atri for staying curious during the entire trip.

American West always fascinated me after watching the movie Mackenna's Gold acted by Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. After coming to US and living here for few years, I was sensing that the story must have been based in canyons of Utah and Arizona. My desire for seeing the west grew even bigger after visiting Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Preserve in California few years back .

I have been hearing about Grand Canyon for ever, I knew that I would visit Grand Canyon someday. We have also been hearing about Las Vegas from friends and saw it in movies many times. Question was what do in Vegas with kids !! Would it make sense to go there until boys grow up? Hoover dam we would sure go with kids while we are in the Grand Canyon. But Vegas being so close to Hoover dam shouldn't we make a family friendly trip to Vegas? For the folks who do not have much information about Grand Canyon, it has two parts - North rim and South rim. Few years back I have heard from a friend that he had visited North rim. Thus North rim was seeded in my head. So both rims of Grand Canyon, Hoover dam and Las Vegas was decided in the trip to American West. What else we could do in this trip and when do we make this trip!
Between both the rims South rim is more visited and open all year round. North rim is only open from mid May to November, but Vegas starts getting hot even before May. So it was little tricky to plan. In the US, Memorial day is on last Monday in May, school would also be closed for summer just couple of days before that. Timing would be perfect because if I take few more days off we could make a 10 day road trip. So what else we could do in the time frame? Earlier last year I heard from a friend about making trip to Yellowstone National Park. While inquiring about it I learned that Yellowstone also opens mid May. So Yellowstone could also be added to the plan. Only concern was drive would be long. For a long time I wanted to see the Rocky mountain and do some hiking, biking there. In that regard Denver would be a good place to fly in. Another option was to fly to Vegas to reduce driving, but if we fly to Vegas we would be loosing a day due to airline ticket prices. So flying to Denver was settled.
As plans were getting solidified we were finding more important things to do than hiking in the Rockies. Besides if we drive from Denver we would get to see Rockies while we drive. We have decided to experience Rockies closely and other areas in the vicinity of Denver at a later time.

Now time for finalizing the route we would take. As I was laying point to point direction in Google maps I found that there was a tiny park named Bryce Canyon National Park and slightly bigger Zion Canyon National Park on the way from Denver to North Rim. When I did some digging I found that I made a mistake. How come I did not know about these parks? These have much more beauty than many National parks. I was trying to drop Vegas area or Grand Canyon North rim from my plan to accommodate one full day each for both of these parks. But that would not help me due to the distance and driving time between different locations. I rued the fact that air tickets have been bought by then and dates cannot be changed without penalty. Oh well !! I tried to squeeze in one evening and one full day for two of these gorgeous parks. Another tricky part of the plan was to find any accommodation inside any of these parks. North rim was the hardest because there was only one lodge inside the park and people start making reservation 13 months ahead. Grand Canyon South rim and Yellowstone were easier, but there also problem was matching dates. My little suggestion here is when staying inside these parks or immediately outside of the park make reservation in lodge/hotel even before making flight booking. Once reservation for accommodation is made they can be adjusted depending on availability. When in doubt chat with reservation consultant, for my case our itinerary was rearranged after I discussed with Yellowstone consultant.
Route is nearly decided, now the question was can we manage to add Rocky Mountain National Park or Mount Rushmore on our back from Yellowstone. Both turned out to be risky as he we got a flight to catch. We have instead added Grand Teton National Park as it was just south of Yellowstone. Now our route was pretty much settled.

Following is our route overview taken from Google Maps with legends:

Route map with legends
While we were excitedly looking forward to the trip we weren't really talking much about it as the day was approaching. It was partly because I was very busy at work up to the day we were going to fly and partly because my elder son Adi's school would close for summer vacation that day only. Thankfully my wife Sonali's work place was closed for summer the week before, otherwise it would have been lot more strenuous. As always she did all the packing, I only helped her in listing things to pack.
Few weeks earlier I borrowed bunch of books from the library to learn about the parks we were going to go to. I flipped through a few of them, didn't read much. I finally selected only a two of them to take with me on tour. One on Bryce and Zion, other on Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks written by Brian Kevin was one of them. I must say this is by far one of the best travel guides I have ever used. In our earlier trips both Sonali and I read lot more prior to the trips. May be we wanted to discover there at the parks or may be we were getting tired of planning too much. Normally in our trips we make reservations weeks ahead of time, because on tour we want to spend most of our time seeing things. Also it gets risky if hotel reservations are not made ahead of time. We have seen people suffering. Very rarely we change hotel reservations during tour. It happened only on the last day during this tour.

Finally May 24 came, the day we started our venture to American West. It was direct flight from Indianapolis to Denver. It was just 15 minutes late, so can't complain. From Denver airport we headed for car rental pickup. We have originally reserved a full size Chevy Impala type of vehicle. From our prior driving experience of more than 2000 miles full size was a good choice. This time I knew it was going to be over 3000 miles and majority of the road would be on the mountains. So when the upgrade option to a crossover vehicle came without too much difference we went with it. We have finally settled with a Mazda CX9, it was a brand new AWD vehicle with third row seat flatable - awesome.
We have loaded the vehicle with our luggage and about to drive to the hotel to spend the night before we head start our journey. To our horror we found that the power connector of the GPS was not working. I tried a few times, first thought something was wrong with the car outlet. I tried car phone chargers, they were working. So that meant GPS charger was broken, great. This Tomtom charger also connects to antenna for live traffic update. GPS charger broken meant GPS would be out of juice after sometime and no live traffic update. On long drives live traffic update would really save time. I wasn't too much worried about the live traffic update as we weren't going to drive too much in city area. a nonfunctional GPS power adapter was definitely worry some. Earlier I have forwarded detailed point to point direction to my e-mail which I could access from my phone. That would work as backup. So I was worried, not afraid. However, we have decided to head out to the hotel using whatever charge left on the GPS.
We were supposed to pick up grocery for our long journey next morning before we leave. Since kids were awake when we were checking in to the hotel, we decided to buy grocery from nearby Walmart. We thought of trying our luck with replacement car charger for the GPS. Guess what !! - we found one. It wasn't really meant for GPS, it was for blackberry. Oh well, whatever works. My mind was at peace then - we did our grocery, had some late night dinner and crashed to bed.

May 25, we woke up bright and early and started towards west as soon as we could. Bryce Canyon was beckoning. Only highway to Bryce Canyon was I-70. Looking at the map I knew we were going to drive by the Rocky mountain range and was hoping to get a glimpse of the Rockies. Even though we landed so close to the Rockies, I was feeling bad that we would not be visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park. So seeing Rockies from as close as possible was very important. We started seeing the mountain range even before we left the city limit. As we left the city behind the real Rockies showed up. It was gorgeous sight. Driving could not be boring with this ever changing landscape. Sonali was managing the camcorder and the camera well. Just FYI, we have used Canon Vixia HF S20 camcorder and Pentax K100D camera for our trip. I cannot share many picture in this blog as it will take lot of space. I would possibly add my Picassa web link for those interested in detailed tour pictures towards the end of this blog.
Shortly after we left Denver city limit we had to cross Eisenhower Tunnel, officially the Eisenhower–Johnson Memorial Tunnel. I later learned that  it is one of the highest vehicular tunnels in the world. One can read more about this tunnel in Wikipedia. Couple of things I noticed different about this tunnel - it was very long and the tunnel went on a curve instead of normally straight, it was also was very well lit, altogether different experience than other tunnels I drove through in the past.
Rockies from car
The picture was a sight of Rockies while we were driving. Interestingly enough snow on the mountain was still there even though outside temperature was over 60 degrees. Every few miles character of landscape was changing. We have never experienced scenic beauty miles after miles before.
Almost about 2 hours into driving we stopped by a place called Copper Mountain in Colorado. There we saw a neat thing. Two dogs were pulling a person each with those people on skateboard. We heard about dogs pulling sledges before, but not people on skateboards. We thought that was cool. From there we headed towards Utah. Shortly after we crossed Grand Junction we found Colorado river going nearly parallel to us. It was a great sight not only because of the powerful river, but also for the beautiful rock formation right by the highway. Surprises never left us. 
As we were approaching Utah, rocky mountains were replaced by mountains made of rocks and grayish soil. Close to the highway level they appeared like a big giant sitting with its paw laid in the front. This reminded me of a story of a scientist who became really large, something like 80 times, during his experiment and the experiment was done in the desert of Sahara to find a wide open space.
The following picture may not have captured the paw, but see if imagination takes you there.
Paws of a Giant
It did not take too long for mountain with paws to turn into canyon with red rocks that we were longing to see. We stopped by at the vista of Black Dragon Canyon. At this stop we realized that canyon range must have started and we are in that region.
After this vista point it did not take us too long to finally leave I-70 behind and we got on US-89. On US-89 one really gets to see old America. There were small little villages we were passing in the middle of mountain range, great sight. Living in these villages may not have changed for years.
Shortly after driving on this road we started seeing signs for Bryce Canyon National park, it got us excited as we wanted to see sunset at Sunset point. Soon after we crossed Panguich (I was planning on spending the night there, but I was lucky enough find a lodge right outside of the park) we got on the scenic road UT-12. It was truly very scenic route and we stopped at each vista point as each of those were sight to behold. We didn't care much for sunset at the time as we didn't want to miss what we were seeing on the road.
On UT-12 towards Bryce Canyon Park
Few more wowing points after this gate we have finally arrived the very beautiful Bryce Canyon. What we have seen on the way to the park was just beginning. I will write about our experience inside Bryce Canyon and further in my following blogs. So please stay tuned for more.

Ps. If you are interested please click on the link Denver to Bryce Canyon for pictures related to this blog.