A glimpse of the national parks in southwest USA

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Love is a feeling which can be manifested in so many unimaginable ways. It is a feeling which can be shared between both living and non living things, a feeling which has the power to give warmth to the soul even in the harshest times. If you think I am doing a bad job explaining love, well, love is something which can’t be explained. In the 26 years of my life, I have been fortunate to experience love from many people in different forms – parental, brotherly, family, friendly, etc. Since last three years I have been taking refuge in mother nature and the love we have shared has transcended me into a different positive person altogether and I only crave for more love. This trip was something like never before – I experienced mother nature in such contrasts that I was left open-mouthed at almost every place I visited. Even though the trip involved visits to a series of deserts, it watered the love for nature in me.

I had the liberty to take leaves from work for multiple days and was desperately looking for options to make good use of them. Singles cruise trip in Caribbean and skiing classes at Stevens pass were top contenders. But after discussing with Sai(my Cornell friend), we finalized on a road trip in the southwest for 4-5 days(Feb 4 – 9) with Las Vegas as pivot. Itinerary here.

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Since it was winter, I was apprehensive about the experience in the national parks but little did I know what lay ahead. I had an early morning flight and even though I reached SEA-TAC airport around midnight, I couldn’t get much sleep. I had never seen an emptier airport before. In the flight, I took the morning Sun’s rays as blessings and was ready to commence the trip. After landing at Vegas airport, I took a shuttle and went to rental center to secure a 4 wheel drive. Lisha, Sai, his friends Smitha and Harneet flew from SF and met me at SixT rental agency where I was waiting for the delivery of Volvo XC60. After much wait, we were handed a new looking car with sunroof and ample luggage space. It was around 11 AM by the time we started and we were quite late. We stopped by at Walmart to pick up some snacks and started the 1676 mile long road trip.

Day 1: Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon National Park

We took Highway 93 and our first attraction of the trip was Hoover dam. For me, the most interesting fact about Hoover dam was this – The dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the USA – which I learned from my previous trip while I was flying over Hoover dam. I wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the dam and wasn’t too keen on driving over it. But we ended up driving over while looking for a place to get a good view. We stopped at a spot behind the dam and saw the color difference(chocolate-cream) on the mountains above the river. There on enquiring, a fellow tourist directed us to a parking spot from which we could go walk on the Highway 93 bridge itself to get a panoramic view of the dam. It was a short trip on the stairs after which we started walking on a tall bridge called Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which stands at 840 feet above the Colorado River. There was just a railing to separate us, and the peek down almost gave me goosebumps. I walked till the center of the bridge and caught a good view of the massive Hoover dam ahead and green Colorado river under.

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We walked back and continued our journey crossing the Nevada-Arizona border. The drive to Grand Canyon NP was about 4 hours long, and we had stopped just once in between to refuel. We had to be extra careful about refueling as we would driving in deserts the entire trip.

It was a race against the time to reach the Mather point for sunset at Grand Canyon NP. We made to the point just in time to see the layers of Grand Canyon lit by the Sun’s last rays of the day. I hadn’t quite enjoyed the Grand Canyon from earlier visit but this time I loved the scenery in front of me. I realized that at-least to me, the canyons looked better during the sunrise or sunsets than on middays. The snow patches on the mountains on our side made the view all the more dramatic and we soaked in the magnanimity of Grand Canyon.

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Harneet wanted to see the actual sunset and not the sunset over canyons. So kept asking us to move to other side. We walked along the rim for some time, enjoyed different shades on the horizon and made it to the car. We left for Page and on the way we stopped for star gazing. I got out of the through sun-roof to view the numerous stars on the night sky. After having Pizza for the dinner, we stayed at Comfort-Inn suites at Page, AZ. Throughout the stay we booked only one room at the hotels with 2 queen beds and 5 of us somehow managed to sleep. Most of them had free breakfasts, so I considered these pretty good deals.

Day 2: Horseshoe Bend, Lower Antelope Canyon and Navajo Monument Valley Tribal park

I wanted to see sunrise and sunsets from the best locations possible in the entire trip and had planned accordingly. The hotel at Page was located at short distance from both the attractions for the day. We got up early in the morning, had breakfast and left for Horseshoe bend to catch the sunrise. We were bit late by the time we reached the parking spot and it was a short(20 mins) hike to the bend. I didn’t want to miss the morning rays falling over the canyon in the bend, so I dashed and reached the spot soon. On reaching the cliff near the bend I was presented with an amazing view of the Canyon and Colorado river. This is the point from which we can see the horse-shoe shaped meander of the Colorado river. The whole rim on the cliff is an open place with absence of railings and it was quite dangerous.  There was a hill behind us and the Sun slowly started making its way up which lighted the canyon in-front of us in bright yellow. We saw this layered lighting for around an hour which started from the mountains far behind the bend till it made it over the bend. When the sun shone on the cliff, I could see a golden reflection on an almost calm river in the right side. There wasn’t much crowd and we had ample time and space to immerse in the beauty.        IMG_20160205_080341

 

My friends started to go back to the car but I choose to wait for some more time at the place and surprisingly, I was the only one at the bend. In few mins, I could see a small boat traversing the bend slowly creating peaceful ripples. It was a beautiful sight, especially when the boat cut through the golden reflection. It looked as though it was cutting a ribbon. It was three on three. Last three places were a hit and we were only a day old in the trip. We then went back to hotel, had more breakfast and left for lower Antelope Canyon.

One has to go through a tour to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon. There are two tour companies near the canyon and we chose Kent tours. We got a slot for 11 AM and there were around 15 people in our group who were managed by a guide named Ashley. We reached the start of the canyon in sometime and little did we know what awaited us. Antelope canyon is formed by the sandstone erosion by water and wind. The erosion results in a narrow canyon with smooth carved sandstone on either sides. When the Sun’s rays falls over the canyon, dramatic colors and sight awaits the visitors. We had to take set of steep stairs to get into the canyon and visual treat fest started even before we reached the bottom of the canyon. The orange wavy sandstone looked mesmerizing in the late morning and it was one of a kind we all had seen. We started clicking pictures and never stopped till the end. It was around half a mile walk which would last around an hour. Our guide Ashley was super sweet as she waited very patiently for us to cover ground and sometimes we would meet the next group touring the canyon. She also showed us the best formations and good photo locations. Photos didn’t do justice to some locations but surprisingly some photos looked more beautiful due to color corrections. Ashley knew the settings for good photos and it looked like she knew more about iPhones than Android phones. I am not a fan of any filters, and so I stuck to original settings. This place awakened the photographer in each one of us and I was personally very happy with my amateur clicks. We could notice a laughing shark, a dragon, the face of a girl and various other resemblances. Overhead, I could see pointed waves frozen in time. I rubbed the sandstone with my hand and was surprised to absolute absence of color. Bewitched by the amazing formations, I got emotional during the tour. Usually, I had enjoyed geographical beauty from far, but this being so close encapsulated me in almost 360 degrees, it was magical.

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After coming out of the canyon, I felt like I was in a different world altogether. It was one of the most surreal places I had ever visited. This place was one of the favorites for most of us in the trip. We left for monument valley and for most of the journey through the trip we had amazing scenery to delight the drivers and those who were awake.

I had seen the buttes on tv before and always wanted to visit Monument valley for it had many of them. I was also very excited about the View Hotel which provides a crazily beautiful view right from the balcony. We reached there well before sunset and took the best available room. We checked in the room and then the balcony to see three big dark orangish buttes. The view was spectacular and easily the best view I ever had from a hotel stay.IMG_20160205_160506

To our right was a large red mesa with snow patches, vast expanse of the park for most of the openness and restaurant in the far left. We then left for off-road scenic drive which had multiple view points. The drive took us closer to buttes, mesas and to a beautiful overlook of the park.  Some of the buttes resembled elephants, camels, people, etc. Our imaginations came into play and we had fun spotting them. We stopped nearby a butte and climbed to go touch the butte. Even here, the butte refused to color my hand on rubbing. Three sisters, Rain God mesa, totem poles and artist point overlook were some of the major points we covered. Since we were there in the late afternoon and the entrance closed at 5 PM, there were very few cars for the drive. I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful and monumental park. We had a sumptuous dinner (mine was like Chhole Bhature) and retired for sleep.

Day 3: The best Sunrise, Arches National park 

The next morning I was up early and got ready soon to catch the sunrise from the balcony. Right from the dawn to sunrise, I hesitated to look away from the mesmerizing view ahead. This was the most thorough sunrise I had ever witnessed. First, Sun popped as a tiny golden piece and then swiftly ascended into the horizon to present one more beautiful day. Harneet and I went to explore other parts of the hotel and had breakfast. Restaurant was filled with large window panes and provided a serene view of the park. They had rightly named the hotel as “The View”. Here at the gift shop, I started collecting magnets of national parks.  I couldn’t find my glasses and after searching everywhere possible considered it lost and continued the trip. As soon as we joined the main road, we had a very pretty scene ahead of us. Actually sometimes I used find these pretty scenes from the side mirror. The narrow straight road cut through the park and the buttes towered on the other side. We frequently made stops to capture the sight and drove to Arches national park, Utah.

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It was around noon we reached Arches National Park and it was overcast. But as the afternoon sailed by, Sun came out soon and the sky got pretty clear eventually. All these national parks have fees to be entered and we got an annual pass. The ranger was quite nice and even reimbursed the fees for Grand Canyon national park. We got a map and started deciding the places to cover before the sunset.  I badly wanted to do the Delicate arch hike, so kept some time aside for it and tried to cover as many other places. First we stopped at La-Sal panoramic point which was quite beautiful with snow on most of the landscape. We then saw a daredevil performing rock climbing on a butte. Even here we saw some elephant buttes and also we were getting to see natural sandstone arches. Our first hike of the day was to double arches which is a close set pair of natural arches. It was a short hike and we could hear echoes on the trail where we made funny noises. The place looked spectacular where the huge sandstone had an opening in the between with arches along the side. I tried to climb to the arch on the other side but ice made the climb slippery and I gave up after multiple attempts. After spending some time jumping/climbing here and there we left the place to reach Delicate Arch trailhead.

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The ranger we met at Double arches had suggested us against the delicate arch due to the presence of snow and absence of microspikes. Nonetheless we still wanted to give a shot and planned to cover as much as possible. It was 3 miles roundtrip with pretty steep climb at some places. The first part of the hike was short ups and downs on small hills then we found ourselves on a huge unmarked mountain. We hardly had breaks and kept climbing continuously. We were at the top of the mountain and looked like we were lost. Then our little friends in the form of totem helped us move forward. After some distance it was purely totems which showed us the way and we kept tracing it. The hike had some dangerous crossings and it was adventurous. At a point there was a person frantically looking for the path ahead and I somehow managed to find the path and showed him the route. The final stretch of the hike was dramatic as we had to walk on a narrow path with snow on the face of a cliff. Soon after the stretch the trail ended and we were facing the famous Delicate arch. The arch is a delicate inverted U placed at the edge of the mountain and it was quite a scene.

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It was time for sunset and I was so glad to be there after an adventurous hike. I tried to be more adventurous and we walked along the slopey rim of a big hole to get very close to the delicate arch. We were facing a big hole on one side and nothingness on the other side, Then I tried to be even more adventurous and looked to get into the arch itself. It was a steep slope to the arch and I skid slightly which gave me the fear of my life. Taking baby steps, I was completely in the arch and it was one of the best moments of my life. I felt like I was placed in a ring of high energy and the energy radiated towards me. It was as though a very special crown was placed over my head and I am not even exaggerating. Lisha too had joined me for all these adventures and she was like we are photobombing pictures there. We soon got away to the rim and sat there to enjoy the sunset beside the arch. There was another Asian guy whom we had seen Monument Valley park too. He was so active and running around all places to click pictures. Harneet went into a pensive mode during the sunset. We left to descend after some time and realized that we had taken a slight detour while climbing up. The totems were more frequent here and this didn’t involve dangerous crossings. As we were descending, we could see the sky painted with various shades of orange which was enchanting. 

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But the adventures for the day didn’t quite end. We had a long drive ahead to Bryce National park. We crossed a town named Green River and saw the information board saying that there was no service(food and gas) ahead for 104 miles. It was ridiculous since we were on an Interstate highway. I checked the fuel tank where it showed half filled and after making some miscalculations I decided that we were good for the journey. I was on cruise control with heater and full car. The car was showing the number of miles I could cover and I noticed that the miles were dropping at an alarming rate. I alerted others and everyone was kinda tensed except Smitha who was happily sleeping. I didn’t want to take an exit and turn back as we would lose time and I wanted some thrill for the ride. After googling, we learned that cruise control takes more fuel in hilly regions and I turned it off. We lowered the fan speed and made the journey with a sense fear in our hearts. Soon the miles started dropping as expected and we made to the next gas station with ample of fuel left. It was foolish since we had filled fuel even when it was unnecessary earlier and here I had pushed to save some time and have some thrill. I wondered what this stretch would look like in the daytime which literally had no habitation for straight 100 miles. We had a tasty dinner at a Mexcian restaurant at Salina and stayed at Best Western hotel near Bryce Canyon National park.

Day 4: Bryce Canyon National park, Zion National Park, Las Vegas

Everybody thought that someone had set an alarm but none did. Harneet got up and woke us all but we were quite late for sunrise. I checked the temperature and it was -13 deg C. It had been quite a while since I had experienced such cold weather. Lisha, Sai and I soon got layered up and drove to inspiration point for Sunrise. Sunrise was almost over but again a different sight was in-front of us. A series of hoodoos filled the park and the texture felt like those of anthills. At some places these hoodoos were aligned in a straight line which was quite amazing to see. We walked along the snowy rim where we found other Kannadigas. We then went to Bryce Point and I liked this viewpoint better as it gave a more elevated view along with a view of window arches and the park’s vast expanse. Those naturally formed arches on the cliff resembled windows of a big house. It was very windy and quite cold. We went back to hotel and had breakfast and came back to Bryce point again for Smitha and Harneet. I found my glasses, it was deep inside my backpack and I had looked everywhere else other than my bag.

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We left for Zion National Park and it was around noon when we reached the east entrance. From the entrance, we saw that the roads were colored red here which resembled the color of the mountains around us. “Zion”, I had first heard this word in the movie Matrix and this name somehow attached mystery to it for me. The mountains in Zion were like Big Daddy, single reddish mountains towering one over the other and were ginormous. The roads wound between them and we had to cross a very long tunnel. Tunnel was one way and we had to play relay with the rangers. The last car entering from either side had to collect a baton and hand it over in the other side. I had my headlights off and was completely in dark once in the tunnel. The tunnel lasts for 1.1 mile and at some places there are openings to overlook huge mountains. We later took the scenic loop where the road went through the valley with various view points and trailheads from the points. Our first stop was at weeping rock. It was a short hike to a place where the water seeped in through the mountain and fell as droplets. We could see tiny holes on the mountain from where the water came and actually water flowed from inside the rocks. It was quite a discovery.

Best viewed in 480p and above.

We saw peahens on the road near the Grottos point. Grottos point is the trailhead for the famous Angel’s landing hike. We parked at Temple of Sinawava and started walking along the river named Virgin. The river cut through the canyon and it became narrower as we walked. After some distance we saw that the trail was marked closed with chains as there was danger of ice structures falling over head. I said lets go and chunk of ice fell in front of me. After some discussion, I said lets go again and again small chunks of ice fell. Then I just crossed the chains and went on the trail for some distance with hands over my head and fortunately nothing fell. Smitha saw it as bad sign that ice fell both the times and hence we decided not to go to the narrows. We went back and parked the car at visitor center to take Parus trail for sunset. The trail went through a valley alongside the Virgin river with tall mountains towering on either side. We had a jolly walk along the trail and turned back when the sun was about to set. We spent some time peaceful time near the river side. The Sun painted the mountains in deep orange as it set and it was captivating.

IMG_20160207_180058We left for Las Vegas and had spicy dinner at Mt Everest. We toured the hotels, visited casinos, saw the fountains at Bellagio and retired for sleep at Americas Best value Inn(bad choice).

Day 5: Death Valley Nation park, scariest off-road crossing

It was quite late(around noon) by the time we left for Death Valley National Park. The name “Death valley” itself was enough to give us the chills. We crossed the California border and the mountains here were brownish in color with various shades. Our first stop was at Zabriskie point. Here we could see something called badlands formations which looked like sand dunes with contrasting cream and dark brown shades. It looked as though the water flowed over these once upon a time since there were formations of water flowing down the hill.

IMG_20160208_153132The view was quite amazing from this place and there were trails at many places between these dunes. We spent some time here and went to visitor center. I was surprised to know that we were at sea level and forget sea-level, at visitor center we were 190 feet below sea-level. The temperature was 91F (32 C) in the winter. In February last year at Ithaca, I had experienced -22 C. I was really surprised at this. It was not humid but just hot and Death valley has the record of highest temperature(57.78 C) measured on Earth. At the visitor center I learned about beautiful night sky at Death valley and the off-road drive at Titus Canyon which would take around 3 hours. It was around 4 PM and I was hesitant to take the off-road drive. Sai was asking about the Sailing stones and the ranger absolutely discouraged us to go there since it required lots of planning and had its own dangers. I asked about Titus canyon. To this the ranger didn’t quite discourage me – he also encouraged the night drive. He just made sure that we had a wheel drive. I got some confidence and since the AWD of the car wasn’t put to much use yet, I asked others about it and they kinda agreed for it. I was still afraid since we were in Death valley and the off-road in Death valley that too in dark alarmed me. Nonetheless I thought of giving it a shot.

We drove north to the entrance of Titus Canyon and we saw wildflowers on the way. It was around 5 PM by the time we started off roading. The first stretch was completely straight on an uneven road with lose gravel. I drove very slowly(10 mph) and carefully as to not have a flat tire or major wear and tear. The scenery behind us was breathtaking. The setting sun ahead had some beautiful effect on the sky and it was like most of the colors of rainbow were layered in the sky. IMG_20160208_172516The Sun set and slowly darkness started engulfing the place. The drive was not that tough initially except that I had to be very slowly. We hadn’t set the GPS and didn’t even know how long was the off-roading. We were guessing the distance from the physical maps based on the turns the road took. Then we made to the mountains and this is where I think even my friends were kinda scared. The evening light had some crazy effects on the mountains including some silver patches. The road here started to wind and we were going up and down the hills. There were sharp turns on the hills with loose mud and car skid sometimes. There were no railings, no tar, one way road, no light and deep cliffs on one side. I was extra careful but still joking through the drive all the way. My friends either trusted my driving skills enough or were praying silently, as they didn’t lecture me much.  It was completely dark after some time and we reached a place called Ghost town. Apparently this was an abandoned mining place. As soon as I stopped the car here, the dust started amassing in-front of the headlight which added to the scariness of the name of the town. It had taken us over an hour to reach here and we had covered 60% maybe. We set the GPS and now we were aware of the distance to be covered. At some places road was wider and there was place to park and move around. We saw a parked jeep and most likely they were camping to our astonishment. We stopped at a place and from our little efforts, helped green the Death Valley. The stretch after this was my favorite. The road passed through a narrow canyon with huge rocks on either side. The road was even and I could go around 30 mph. The headlights shone the rock and sometimes we were just inches away. We couldn’t even see where the road went after some distance into the canyons. For me this was like magnified version of Antelope canyon. It was both terrifying and stunning at the same time.

Best viewed in 480p and above.

Finally we covered the 26 miles off-roading and gladly we were safe and sound by the time we hit the tar road. After the drive I somehow felt that I had developed a special bond with my friends. This was the scariest drive I had ever had. We stopped for star gazing where I could see bright band of stars. Not sure if that was the milky way but stars glittered brilliantly in the night sky.

We started the drive and then we had a video where we all shared about the off-road experience. Sai who is usually terse, for the first time in the trip gave a very detailed description about the drive. I realized what effect the drive had on all of us. We went to Vegas for the night, slept and returned the car in the morning. My friends took flight to SF and I to Seattle. This trip will surely be etched in my memory for a long long time. Usually near the end of the trip, I would be like let’s go home now. But this time I felt that I wasn’t done yet and wanted to continue with the trip.  I saw mother Earth like never before, witnessed sunrises/sunsets like never before, experienced beautiful feelings/emotions and drove in crazy places. This only deepens my relationship with mother nature and I am barely scratching the surface. I will certainly go back to these parks and spend more quality time dwelling in the wilderness.

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Curse of planning: 

For most of the places in the trip, I had seen pictures during planning. I am not sure if this affected the excitement when I visited the places, but certainly I would have loved if it was a complete surprise. But one has to plan unless we go to organized tours. Even then I would explore the places I want to really cover and visit. Most of these places were romantic too and if you really want to surprise the other half with such beauty, it would be good if you could avoid discussing the travel plans as much as possible.

Tips:

  • If you want to get a complete experience, dedicate at-least 2 days per national park.
  • At-least for me, canyons looked best during sunrise/sunset
  • Buy annual pass if visiting multiple national parks. Costs $80

Hoover dam:

  • Tours available
  • Best viewed from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Things to do in Page:

  • Horseshoe Bend (Dawn, Sunrise and sunset)
  • Upper Antelope Canyon. Sun beams in the canyon.
  • Lower Antelope canyon, more adventurous (Late morning)
  • Lake Powell. Boat rentals available

Monument valley Navajo tribal park:

Arches national park:

  • Double arches hike
  • Delicate arch hike

Zion National park:

  • Angles Landing hike (Tough and perilous)
  • Narrows walk (Dry suits)
  • Scenic loop
  • Very good shuttle service available during summer
  • Drive through the tunnel near east entrance
  • Parus trail for sunset

Death Valley National park:

  • Look for Rangers programs
  • Zabriskie point
  • Titus Canyon off road drive (AWD required)
  • Sailing stones (Good planning required)

 

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Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “A glimpse of the national parks in southwest USA

  1. Rajashri Navali

    wow good description about adventours tour

  2. Pingback: Zion and Bryce National Park – 2017 | Life is an Adventure

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