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.