Monthly Archives: June 2017

7 June 2017: Heading home…

After leaving Grand Canyon National Park, the plan was we’d make a quick stop to see Petrified Forest National Park, bip on down the road to see Susan and Terry at their mountain place in Pine Top, and then head home. As we were driving through a construction zone, though, a passing truck kicked up a rock, which hit the windshield, knocked a nasty hole in the top, and created two cracks running down the windshield. Such things are quite common actually, just the necessary consequence of pushing a piece of glass that’s four feet high and eight feet wide down the highway at freeway speeds. It’s actually more common on an Alaska trip, but since Arizona roads seem slightly worse than the Alaska Highway, I expect broken windshields are a fact of life here too. In any event, the windshield repair place, as it turns out, was in the same town as our stop anyway. Woo hoo. See some rockish wood, get the windshield fixed, take a breather up in the mountains, and then point ourselves east, pedal-to-the-metal, and away we go.

Petrified Forest National Park was interesting. Actually it was fascinating. But having spent a month being blown away by sights of breathtaking beauty and drama, we’re a pretty tough audience and petrified wood, even if otherwise worth seeing, just wasn’t up to our current show-us-what-you-got standard.

Millions of years ago, this area was a dense pine forest. Of course, it was also down somewhere near Costa Rica and the African continent hadn’t broken off from South America, and the whole planet was basically confused and disoriented, so having a pine forest here is the least weird thing about the geological history of this place. Anyway, as the trees died and fell over, mineral-rich groundwater permeated the logs and the logs’ tissue got turned to rock.

My favorite kinds of petrified trees are those where the innards got turned to quartz, like this specimen at “Crystal Forest.”

So there are square miles of rock trees, sometimes even full logs, all over the place. And it’s all interesting in a “isn’t that weird?” kind of way. And there’s also the usual interesting geological stuff:

If you look closely, you can see that this portion of “Blue Mesa” is littered with petrified wood.

We also got a good glimpse of a famous petroglyph display known as “Newspaper Rock”:

Scientists say that the reason the ancient Indians disappeared from this area is a big mystery. Good grief. Look at the rock! It’s obvious that aliens came down to the planet, made a bunch of hand gestures that probably mean “We Serve Mankind,” did a twirly dance thing, and then took them all off to Mars. So much for that mystery.

And the top of the park is the “Painted Desert,” although given our current demands for dramatic scenery, we just pretty much drove through it.

So, after that, we spent a great day up in the mountains, had another wonderful Mexican dinner, and it’s time to head home. The new windshield didn’t come in, but the glass people said it’s safe to drive as-is, so we’ve decided to drive home with a crack in it and we’ll get it fixed later.

When Wendy and I got married, we resolved that someday we’d travel around the country and our first stop would be Grand Canyon National Park. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and it took us way longer to get going on our travels than we planned, but we’re finally well into fulfilling that dream. It’ll be nice to be home, but we are so grateful for a trip like this. Over a dozen national parks and monuments, including places we always said we’d figure out a way to visit someday. And without a doubt, some of best examples of the incomprehensible beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. What a trip!


1-5 June 2017: Grand Canyon National Park

Before we arrived here at Grand Canyon National Park, we were wondering whether the park may end up being something of a let down. After all, we’d spent the past few weeks in areas of deep, richly colored canyons, spectacular forms of erosion, and towering buttes and arches. Could the Grand Canyon really measure up to all that? We weren’t sure.

Well, the Grand Canyon measured up just fine, but oddly it took us three days here to realize that. We arrived on day one too late to hit the Visitor Center, so the second day we did our usual thing: checked in, spoke to the rangers, watched the official film, got the hiking and touring information, and mapped out a plan, which began with hitting Mather Point, right next to the visitor center, and then hopping in the car to see the classic overlooks along the eastern half of the park.

Bleh. It was pretty hazy, which didn’t help, but the views were basically of a plateau that obviously had deep canyons running through it, but the canyon walls disappeared mostly without revealing their depths and the Colorado River, if it was visible at all (which it usually wasn’t) was just a thin, barely discernable blue line. The colors were muted by the haze and the dramatic, breath-taking vistas we expected basically weren’t. And plus, it was crowded.

The view from Mather Point near the Visitor Center. If you click on this photo you can barely make out the Colorado River in the upper right-hand corner. It’s that teensy blue thing. So this scene is sort of interesting, but breathtaking it wasn’t. And at each overlook, the effect was the same: our breath remained safely untaken.

Plus, as we traveled from viewpoint to viewpoint, each of the views was basically identical. Some of them supposedly featured oddly-named spires and buttes (like the “Temple of Vishnu” and the “Isis Temple”), but there was little to distinguish one from the other, they mostly were blurred by the haze, and there was no guide to pick them out anyway. Definitely more bleh.

Maybe, we thought, things would be more impressive under better light, so we packed up a picnic dinner and headed to one of the recommended overlooks to photograph the sunset. Bleh. The next morning I got up at 3:00 and headed over to a different overlook to photograph a sunrise. More bleh. Later that day, we drove down to the National Geographic visitor center in Tusayan to see the IMAX film on the Grand Canyon. That showed what we expected: incomprehensibly deep canyons, dramatic colors, raging rapids, and dramatic sunsets. The problem was that none of that matched what we were seeing in person. We felt like we were running out of time and we were wondering whether our best memories of the Grand Canyon would be of an IMAX movie we saw ten miles away.

Then, on the night of our second day, things began to change. Once again we headed over to watch the sunset, but this time the light started to cooperate. Things were still hazy, but the colors of the canyons started to reveal themselves in the light of the setting sun, and the drama of the canyons was, if anything, accentuated in the muted perspective of the evening haze.

Sunset at Yavapai Point. Oddly enough, this was not one of the recommended points to photograph a sunset. We ended up here only because, as we were sitting around at a burger joint, Wendy had a hunch that the clouds were starting to look interesting and suggested we go take pictures of the sunset, and I pulled out a map and chose some random overlook that appeared to have a western exposure. (I’m beginning to think I need to do less planning and more spontaneous hunching. The problem is that I’d basically have to change my personality.)

And then things went from bleh to wow on the third day. Somewhat encouraged by the sunset of the preceding night, we decided to give the Grand Canyon one more chance (pretty big of us, eh?) and we took the shuttle bus up to Hermit’s Rest. And then, based on another one of Wendy’s hunches [someone should figure out a way to bottle her intuitions], we decided not to exit the bus at each of the overlooks as we had planned but instead to walk down from Hermit’s Rest seven miles along the Rim Trail back to the starting point. So we bought a couple sandwiches and some drinks in the Hermit’s Rest snack shop and started walking. And there, along the trail, we found the Grand Canyon everyone kept talking about.

A typical view along the Rim Trail, this one only a short way down from Hermit’s Rest. The black-colored rock layers at the bottom of the canyon are, believe it or not, almost as old as the earth itself, nearly two billion years old! Then each of the canyon’s layers rising upward represents hundreds of millions of years of geological history. It’s almost as if one is looking over God’s shoulder as he’s forming the earth over billions of years, getting to watch him as his creation unfolds.

Still along the Rim Trail. As seen here, in places the canyon walls were so red that they appeared artificially colored.

Layer upon layer of differently colored rock, plunging down about a mile into bottomless canyons. The upper portion of the Rim Trail is paved and accessible to bicyclists, which makes it less desirable to hikers like us, but at this point the trail is a dirt path, well-maintained and easy to follow, with few visitors except for occasional hikers.

And it’s not just that we got to see the vistas of the Grand Canyon that we hoped for. As is true in so many other cases, the trail, once removed even just a short distance from where it intersected the bus stops, was basically empty. Until we reached the bottom, we saw no more than a couple dozen hikers along the trail. And the park service has placed picnic tables and benches every few hundred yards along the trail, allowing one to sit and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in silence and awe.

Just one of dozens of picnic tables and benches along the unpaved portions of the Rim Trail, each positioned to allow one to pause for a few moments to gaze over the canyon unfolding below. Incredibly, we had most of the area, including the benches and tables, pretty much to ourselves for three hours.

It’s hard to capture the real psychological effect, but that three-hour hike entirely changed our impression of the Grand Canyon. It is definitely one of the most dramatic places on earth, and it inspires a sense of reverence that is unlike anything we experienced elsewhere. I suppose we still might find the experiences at some of the Utah parks more punchy in a way. Nothing, for example, can really match the weirdness of the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon or the graceful symmetry of the arches at Arches, but the spiritual qualities of the Grand Canyon will forever hold a special place in our memories of this trip. It is true: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Amen.

We still have one more stop to make at Petrified Forest National Park (we skipped it on the way up), plus a stop to get our windshield fixed (long story), but it’s time to start heading home.

29-31 May 2017: Zion National Park

Zion National Park has been something of a mixed bag for us. The campground is spectacular (the photo above was taken about 100 yards from our site, looking up at “The Watchman,” which appropriately watches over us every night) and the Zion canyon itself is breathtaking (more on that below). But this place is seriously overloaded and, for the first time in our travels, we’ve had only limited success in figuring out how to negate the effects of the crowds.

This is probably the worst crowding we’ve ever seen at any national park. Like Manhattan crowded. No, more like Tokyo crowded. At one point, there were so many tour buses jammed into the museum/welcome center (seven, we think) that they closed off the parking lot, the shuttle buses could not get in, and people could not get back to their cars. The hike on the “River Walk” up to “The Narrows” was like a New York sidewalk, with people elbow-to-elbow, pushing and shoving, as they were barely able to creep along. A few days ago, there was a two hour wait to get on the shuttle buses. When we took the shuttle up the canyon (cars are prohibited, thank goodness), this is the line we had to wait in:

This wait was only about 15 minutes, even though the line snaked back-and-forth in Disney World fashion for about six circuits. In watching people lining up to get on and off the buses, which often had standing room only, I was reminded of those scenes of commuters being crammed into Tokyo subway cars with giant plungers.

The effect of the crowding was compounded by three factors. First is the arrangement of the park itself. As with Arches, the layout of the park is such that there are only a few points in the park where people are dropped off to see the sights. Eight, to be precise, and since cars are banned, it is eight places and only eight places. Second, the number of visitors is more than the park can accommodate. On a recent peak day, the park had 45,000 people in attendance. Essentially all of those people are crammed in and around those precious few eight stopping points. Do the math… it’s not pretty. Finally, being as tactful about this as I can be, there is a problem with the nature of the population. Zion is very close to Las Vegas, so it attracts travelers consisting of a mix of those who are not interested in traveling to any remote location and who, well, are the kind of people who find Las Vegas to be a desirable add-on to their “national park experience.” They all seem to be urban types for whom crowding and density are a necessary corollary to modern life and they are quite good at importing urban “manners” to their visit to the park. And, for them, this probably just another stop on an American vacation itinerary that consists of New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Zion. That’s the mix. Plus, well over half of the visitors seem to be foreigners who have little knowledge of or interest in conservation of wild places in the American conceptualization of that principle, and therefore seem to have no interest in abiding by the norms of visiting an unspoiled location.

The net result is that for us, several times and for the first times ever in our 45-plus years of visiting national parks, we had the feeling of “get me out of here.”

But, on the other hand, this place is stunning and once away from the crowds, this place is definitely a must-see. Really. This is as beautiful a location as anywhere we’ve ever been.

The Watchman, with the Virgin River flowing through the park. By sunset, the crowds were thinning out and it was actually easy to get this shot.

The “Towers of the Virgin” as seen on an early morning ranger-guided tour. The tour was not only excellent (it focused on the history of the Mormons in this area), because it was (1) early in the morning and (2) a closed group escorted by a ranger, it was free from the crowding that we encountered under other circumstances.

And there were times when we got away from the crowds. For example, we spent one day visiting Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terraces, two little-visited areas of the park (probably because the roads are so winding and narrow) (and for part of the trip, dirt) that tour buses cannot manage the route. Over the entire trip, we saw maybe a half-dozen people.

Kolob Canyon. To get here, one has to drive about 20 miles outside of the park, drive north on I-15 for 15 miles, and then take a narrow, winding, marginally terrifying road up through the canyons. But the views are spectacular.

On a hike to the “Emerald Pools,” which was fairly jammed with people, we continued on past that photo-worthy spot and, once beyond the location where the selfie-crazed tourists were gathered, the crowds completely dissipated and we had the views to ourselves.


Even on the hateful “River Walk,” Wendy discovered a dirt path next to the river, away from the paved trail up to The Narrows, that was once again people-free.

About 100 yards to the left of this tranquil scene are thousands of people, shuffling along in dense crowds, apparently feeling quite at home in the experience but oblivious to the beauty that lies just a few feet away.

And late one day we took off for a moto-touring drive to the east side of the park on the Zion-Mt. Carmel road, and had a wonderful time, relatively immersed in a wild place, as evidenced by this:

A herd of Bighorn Sheep, all females with a couple lambs. Wendy spotted these as we were driving along, gave the command for an immediate stop and we spent about an hour watching them feeding among the rocks.

As the sheep moved off the rocks, this little guy spotted me, apparently wondering why that thing up above him didn’t have horns. We never did see Daddy Bighorn.

So, of the Utah parks, while this is certainly one of the most beautiful, we’d probably say this was our least favorite. Perhaps it would have been better earlier in the season, or perhaps, unfortunately, this is just the future of the national park experience.

In any event, next stop is the Grand Canyon. Further updates to follow…