“There's a race of men that don't fit in, A race that can't sit still; So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will. They range the field and rove the flood, And they climb the mountain's crest; Their's is the curse of the gypsy blood, And they don't know how to rest.”
- Robert Service

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

The Grand Circle Road Trip

I can't say that in the last year Michael and I have traveled with the same frequency as we had been doing before, but by hell or high water, we're going to try!

Last Autumn was a challenge for us. We finally moved into our new apartment, Michael started school, and I did the 'ole "work wanted" trudge. I wasn't able to plan for much - never wanting to set aside time to do things "just in case" I would have a work schedule to manage. December was different, though. Michael's semester finished in the first week, and I had a job with an ultra-flexible schedule at the time, so we decided to skip town and head to the desert!

Now, several years ago, I'd been to various parts of the American West but not in particular detail. Michael had not been there at all (save for a visit to Disney as a kid). Flights to Las Vegas from Vancouver are fairly inexpensive, so it seemed like a great opportunity! This was our itinerary:

Hoover Dam, Nevada
Grand Canyon (South Rim), Arizona
Sedona, Arizona
Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Zion National Park, Utah
Death Valley, California
Las Vegas, Nevada 

You're right! That is 5 states in 12 days! Thankfully, they're pretty squished together. Next, I'll fill you in on what we saw. It was a really easy-to-accomplish road-trip, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. Yes, it was still fairly chilly, though for the most part we didn't need much except a toque and a fleece sweater. Just for this, because we rarely met with any crowds whatsoever, I would recommend you doing this trip in the off-season!

For the most part, we drove what is known as The Grand Circle Tour. It looks a bit like this:

We bypassed the New Mexico and Colorado stops, but we also added in an extra stop in Death Valley, California, before returning to Las Vegas.

So our landing point was Las Vegas, though we hightailed it for the Hoover Dam early on our first day. It's a pretty amazing feat of engineering, but I'll admit that one of the more exciting aspects of the dam are the public restrooms, located in small towers above the dam's road. There are windows with views! My favourite detour, however, was the hike to the Arizona Hot Springs. The trailhead is only 4 miles from the hoover dam, and right off of the I-93. If you're going to do this hike, prep for at least a half day so you can linger and the springs and enjoy the desert-scape. Also, maybe don't do this hike in the summer.

We spent day two at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Here's a hot tip: If you travel to the GC during high season, the rim roads are so busy that visitors are required to park their cars and take a park shuttle to the viewpoint stops within the park. If you're there in the winter, however, you're free to check out the canyon in your own caravan. I would highly reccommend this timing: you can visit at your own pace and not have to worry about packing your things with you all day. I won't go on and describe what the canyon is like except that it's wider and deeper than you think. It also looks amazing with a little dusting of snow!
An appropriately named vista.
Next up was a trip through Sonoma valley, where there are valleys and snake-like switch-backs and buttes worth taking the time to hike up onto!
Morning hike around Bell Rock in Sedona
One of the areas I was really eager to get back to was Monument Valley. The first time I was here, I was travelling with a pilot and we were fantastically lucky to get to fly up an around some of these massive rock towers. But this time, I'd get to see them towering above me! A little side adventure here was our booking at an airBnB near the valley park entrance. We booked a tent! There's a small campground within sight of the monuments and we were set up with everything needed to keep us warm on a chilly December night - though we were asked to bring our own propane for the space heater. Another memorable addition to this campground was the latrine - a doorless outhouse with a view of the desert! I have to say, a moonlit midnight pee excursion has never been so beautiful.
Friendly wake-up call from the locals!

The Mittens
I don't have room for pictures of everything, so I'll give you the cliff notes here. After visiting the location where Forrest Gump decided he didn't want to run anymore, our road trip meandered through Page, Utah to Antelope Canyon - the stuff of your Microsoft Wallpaper dreams. This is another place I was happy to see during the off-season, even if the lighting isn't as good.

Antelope Canyon
We stopped at Bryce Canyon in the afternoon a day later and were lucky to see it with fresh snow! It really emphasized just how many hoodoos are scattered in the valley. This is yet another example of the US National Parks Service  really worked to make the parks accessible to all. Most of the vistas are within a short walk of the roads, and the roads are built parallel to the valleys, so you can easily get out of the car for all sorts of great views!
A skiff of snow on Bryce Canyon!
The next National Park on our list was Zion. This place was so extra. The night before we arrived, there was a sudden downpour and many of the hanging valleys had gushing spontaneous waterfalls! In this case, the road within the park is at the very bottom of the steep valley, and it's a no-exit route - so you must drive out the way you came in. There are several fantastic trails here, including the infamous Angels Landing, so named for the trail so narrow and high up that really, only people with wings should do it. Someone fell off and died here as recently as last March. So, with the fresh rain and slippery, icy conditions at the top, we decided to take the path to Observation Point - a 13km round trip trek with 655m elevation gain and a view from above Angels Landing. So, all in all a beautiful, sweaty day.

"6508 feet above sea level" (1983m)
After deciding that 8 days of constant road-tripping wasn't quite enough, we decided to add a detour to Death Valley. We may have driven slightly faster than we should have, but it meant that we arrived in the valley with about 2 hours of daylight remaining - just enough time to visit some honest-to-goodness sand dunes and this fantastic, salty moonscape!

Our last couple of nights were spent in total opposite to our first week (hiking, camping, and general outdoorsing) in Las Vegas. Michael acquiesced to attendance at a Cirque du Soleil show, we logged a few km's checking out the excesses of The Strip, and we made a visit to the Neon Boneyard - a museum dedicated to Vegas' neon signs.
The Neon Boneyard
As a last note, after having been to several US National Parks on this trip I've really come to appreciate how well they've made the parks accessible and interesting for visitors of all styles. In fairness, their National Parks are geographically much closer and so can be strung together in a tidy little road trip, whereas Canadian National Parks tend to be massive and unfathomably spread out, seemingly inaccessible except for a few points. At any rate, I really like the "Passport to Your National Parks" program they run. Each National Park is commissioned a "passport stamp" which can be used in whichever booklet you choose, though they have issued an "official" passport booklet. For someone like me who likes bringing home souvenirs but doesn't have room anymore, I wished that our Canadian parks had a stamp program like this!

Also, I don't regret taking 10 months to write about this adventure. It's been in my drafts for some time and I think I was just waiting for the right time to finish it up when I was feeling a little "in between trips."