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.