Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mesa Verde, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon: Road Trip in the Snow

For the first half of our road trip, we lucked out in terms of the weather.  It was warm enough in Zion and Moab to clear most of the snow and ice from the trails, but also cool enough to be the ideal temperature for hiking.

When we arrived at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, it became clear that our luck was running out.  The park had recently received a great deal of snow (complete with a small avalanche temporarily blocking the main road through the park) and the overcast skies promised yet more precipitation.

Regardless of the weather, we were ready to explore Mesa Verde!  Mesa Verde is the site of numerous cliff dwellings that were home to the ancient Pueblo peoples.  The dwellings can be explored on ranger-led tours, giving us a chance to clamber through the ruins much like a visit to Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.  (However, since Mesa Verde is located in the U.S. instead of the third world, the actual extent of clambering over ruins is a bit more limited.)

Wintertime visitors are limited to tours of Spruce Tree House, so we followed one of the park rangers into the small canyon behind the visitor center to the array of structures nestled in the cliff below.  The dwellings are arranged as a series of connected apartments and larger public spaces, and we explored what was essentially a small city within the walls of the canyon.  Descending into one of the kivas, which were used by the ancient Puebloans for religious ceremonies, was one of the highlights of the tour.

Although clambering through the other cliff dwellings was off limits in February, we were still able to view the Cliff Palace and other “tiny towns” from a distance.

As we left southern Colorado, the conditions began to deteriorate and we were soon driving through the sleet under gray skies.  Regardless, we tramped through the mud to stop at the Four Corners Monument and be in four states at once.  It was Giorgio’s first visit to both New Mexico AND Arizona (at the same time)!

By the time we arrived at Monument Valley, the sleet had turned into snow, hiding all of the rock formations and turning the park’s main road into such a muddy mess that it was temporarily off-limits to independent drivers.  We waited in vain for the weather to clear; except for a thirty-minute window the following morning, visibility remained extremely limited.  Rather than continue to wait for a break in the weather, we headed west to the Grand Canyon.

As soon as we pulled up alongside the ranger station at the eastern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, we were treated to a detailed overview of the snow conditions along the road to Grand Canyon Village.  The ranger suggested that we stop at the first overlook, just in case we could see anything.  The following photos more or less capture our experience.

As we slowly made our way to the village, careful to avoid any cars with license plates that indicated they were unfamiliar with driving in blizzard conditions, we managed to catch a glimpse or two of the legendary canyon.  We also stopped to wonder why several people we encountered were wearing shorts and flip-flops in the snow.

Arriving in the Grand Canyon Village, we were finally able to appreciate the full grandeur of the canyon as the snow and wind briefly tapered off.  (We also appreciated a prickly pear margarita or two, as recommended by Grandma Carol.)

We awoke the following morning to find several inches of snow covering the ground and more on its way.  Instead of spending the next two nights at the canyon, we opted to drive back to Las Vegas early.  This time, we got to experience Vegas off the strip, enjoying some of the best sushi we’ve had outside of NYC and attempting to squeeze in another hike at Red Rock Canyon (thwarted by unexpected snow AND hail).

Although we missed out on a few things during the final leg of our road trip, we’re sure we’ll have a chance to hike into the Grand Canyon, marvel at the wonders of Monument Valley, and climb down the ladders into Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace on a future trip.  We had to save something for next time!


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Arches and Canyonlands: Hiking through Utah

For the second stop on our Utah road trip, we chose Moab, home to two national parks: Arches and Canyonlands.  

Not surprisingly, Arches is absolutely full of beautiful rock arches.  We stumbled upon them everywhere.  Hiking along the Devil’s Garden Trail, we stopped to admire the famous landscape arch, as well as several other unique formations.

Although we were slightly less impressed with the black angel outcrop marking the trail’s halfway point, the hike itself boasted one spectacular vista after another, the snow-capped mountains in the distance providing the perfect contrast for the blazing red rocks along the trail.

After passing a few of the most famous arches, the well-marked trail transformed into a so-called “primitive trail” for the rest of the lengthy loop.  We followed a series of small rock cairns through the sand, around ponds, and along the rocks.  On our way, we discovered even more arches hidden in the park’s fin canyons.

Of course, a visit to Arches wouldn’t be complete without seeing the precarious “delicate arch.”  Sure enough, it was perched on the hillside – along with the nearby north and south “windows,” the perfect setting for a photo or two.

Before we visited Canyonlands on the second day of our explorations, we stopped at Dead Horse Point State Park.  Susan had promised that the views would rival the photos of the Fish River Canyon we had posted back in September.  As we hiked to the point (actually the site of the demise of numerous horses as the name indicates), the views from the rim were certainly incredible and the canyon itself somewhat resembled its African counterpart.  However, it didn’t quite capture the desolate beauty we had found in Namibia, particularly since we could see the potash production in the distance. 

However, we soon arrived at the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands, where we marveled at the spectacular vistas laid out before us.  Our vantage point on the rim of the 6,000 foot mesa provided the perfect spot for a picnic and a scenic hike, despite the vertigo.  This mesa-top view certainly rivaled the scene we had encountered at the Fish River Canyon.

At Canyonlands, we sadly missed the Needles section of the park, made famous in the film 127 Hours.  Instead of a day scrambling through narrow passageways in the rock while Giorgio shouted “James Franco!” we stayed out of trouble hiking along the rim of the mesa. 

We didn’t have quite enough time to hike down into the canyon spread out below us and make it back up before sunset, but there was still plenty of time to explore the island in the sky.  We found yet another beautiful arch and stopped to wonder about the meteor that may or may not have crashed down to create the park’s “upheaval dome.”

As a side note, we had been a bit concerned about the availability of alcohol in the notoriously dry state of Utah.  However, we shouldn’t have been concerned – there was plenty of local craft beer!  Just don’t ask for a sampler of the various beers on tap because you aren’t allowed to have more than two drinks, no matter the size.