USA

Zion and Bryce National Park – 2017

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After scratching the surface in Utah during my last trip, I had always thought of going back and covering depths of National Parks. Narrows and Angel’s landing were long pending hikes, so I chose to visit Zion and Bryce National Park during the Labor Day weekend. As my geeky friend Alok mentioned, it was DFS than BFS this time. We ventured into the Zion narrows walking in the Virgin river, braved heights to reach Angel’s landing, did mountain biking at 11,000 feet, experienced amazing hoodoos at Bryce and stayed at an awesome Airbnb house at Brain Head.

Unexpectedly, 9 people were ready for the trip and all the bookings were made comparatively late this time. I booked a 15 seater Van through Costco Travels which worked out to be extremely economical ($587 for 4 days with full insurance and 2 additional drivers). 6 of us flew from Bay Area and 3 from Seattle. We had an early morning flight to Las Vegas and it was 9:30 AM by the time we met everyone at a Las Vegas hotel. We spent some time shopping and having breakfast and hit the road to Zion National Park with 9 people in Ford Transit Van. I was scared at times driving the van since it wobbled at high speeds.

Day 1 – Crowded Zion National Park

We had lunch at a Mexican restaurant at SpringDale and entered Zion National park. It was very hot with temperatures rising upto 37 C. Vehicles were parked on the streets miles ahead of the visitor center and slowly we started to realize how crowded the park was. We found a paid parking spot and got onto the shuttle for Emerald pool hike. Due to the narrow canyon, popularity and high number of visitors, Zion NP mandates the usage of shuttles for getting to places in the park. I was quite impressed at the frequency and efficiency of the shuttles. We got down at our stop and started the hike to lower Emerald pools. The weather was quite pleasant in the canyon and it was a short walk to the pools. I didn’t find the place anything great but it was a decent start for the trip walking in the canyon. Somehow Zion didn’t feel quite as magical as last time – maybe due to the crowd and heat. We then went to Zion Adventure Co. to collect gears for Narrows hike. We had a short orientation, collected Neoprene socks, Canyoneering shoes and a walking stick. A guy there expected next day to be the busiest day of the year at the park. Narrows hike was my main agenda for the trip, so I had left no stone unturned to make that happen. Knowing the crowds, heat and the length of the hike, I had planned to leave very early for the hike. We packed for the morning breakfast and lunch and started with 1.5 hr drive to Airbnb place.

People were getting restless with the drive since it was far from the park. The AirBnb house was located at a ski-town named Brian Head which is at an elevation of 9800 ft. It was late night and at first we went to some other house and started entering the key at the door. My friend Karthik explains this better – “This place looked straight out of late 90’s horror movies. We walked through the creaking wooden platform towards the cob webbed building entrance. The lobby even had abandoned toys and dusty piano. The night was eerily silent. The fact that Akhil and I mentioned seeing a black shadow flying on the road on the way to this place still weighed heavily on our minds. And then we saw our room: a dark brown heavy wooden door with an omnious sign which read, “Garcia’s head out” written in Gypsy Curse font! Akhil and Nikhil took a couple of steps back while I confidentally went ahead and entered the access code! Nothing! The door did not open. Partly relived and partly worried, we headed out to the van, not knowing what to do now. And then it hit us! We were in the wrong building”. The actual Airbnb house was fantastic with 3 bed and 3 baths where 11 people could sleep. The house had all the essentials for living and most of the walls were adorned with various things. Akhil was very curious and started exploring the place. I really loved the feel of it and was glad that we chose to stay there. We retired for sleep soon since we had to get up early.

Day 2 – Zion Narrows hike

In the morning, Alok mistakenly had started eating my sub and I resorted to bread-jam. We packed the essentials – food, water, layers, gears for the hike and left the place at 5:30 AM. We reached Zion NP and we parked the van in oversized parking where only 1 spot was filled. There was already a huge line for the shuttles and it was around 8:45 AM by the time we reached the trailhead at Temple of Sinawava. Zion Narrows hike is a walk in the Virgin river which traverses in the canyon it cut through from millions of years. There are 2 approaches top-down which requires permit and bottom up which doesn’t require permit upto a certain distance. We were doing the most common bottom-up hike and I wanted to all of us to finish the Wall Street section atleast which was around 8 miles round trip. We started with the paved riverwalk first which was already quite crowded. Akhil was carrying a can of water by itself and although he was confident to carry during the hike, it fell and broke within 200 meters on the trail. Soon we reached the river and started walking in it. We instantly realized the importance of the waterproof socks and even though we were in the water with slippery stones, the socks and shoes gave enough support for the walk. Water was just knee level deep for most of the section and we enjoyed this unique experience. We encountered a waterfall, numerous bends, canyon walls on the side and many people. The weather was quite pleasant and we made good progress. I ensured we all took breaks and were appropriately nutritioned. I was enjoying the beauty all around and especially liked the combination of still huge canyon walls and flowing water. It was amazing to stand in the Virgin river with different shades of red all around.

Slowly the river got narrow and we were in the famous Wall Street section where the river was just 30 feet wide at some places. From there on I decided to split the group and I joined the fast walkers to make it to as far as possible. We reached a spot where the water was over 5 feet high and we carried our bags on shoulder to cross. Deepak didn’t know swimming and went into deeper section where he started to drown. He threw the bag in action which had camera but fortunately in a waterproof cover. Even my bag went into the water while saving him. We decided to leave our bags there and continued. We asked oncoming people about the route ahead and they told that it was quite an easy walk and no place had chest deep water. So I decided to turn back since there were no major adventures ahead. We came back to the deep section and I started swimming there. I was just happy with the fact that I was swimming the narrow Virgin river. Some of us explored the Orderville canyon for little distance. Return walk was much quicker than expected. The crowd started getting thicker and at places we could see only people and no natural beauty. It also was quite hot in the afternoon Sun. I quickly marched the rest of the walk falling at few places and decided to take a nap on the riverwalk until everyone had done. I got up and I thought I overslept but few had yet to complete. I then went to Natural Museum for a talk before heading to the van. We had taken 9 hours for 8 mile roundtrip walk in the virgin river. But we spent ample time for photos, breaks and fun. It started raining when we were in parking lot which brought down the temperatures. Everyone were quite tired and we drove to Brain Head for dinner. We watched a movie after the dinner and retired to sleep. People were happy that they didn’t have to get up early in the morning.

Day 3 – Mountain Biking, ATV and Bryce National Park

We slept to our content, spent quality morning time sipping coffee and left to explore outdoor activities. After roaming around multiple offices, we decided to split between ATV and Mountain Biking. MB was long pending and I was interested in it especially due to the availability of ski lift. Deepak and I chose mountain biking and I was ready with gloves, jeans and a jacket. I was quite sure that I would fall and wanted to minimize the bruises. We took the bikes, went on the ski lift which took us to 11k feet and started with the most easiest trail named Color Country. After an easy first few meters, there came a steep section and climb. I was quite fast and I was so imbalanced that I was deciding how to fall easily. But fortunately somehow I was still safe on the bike. The rest of the trail had little difficulties and I thoroughly enjoyed the adrenaline, speed, balance and jerks. The trail was quite rocky which made it little difficult. The last section was in the forest with steep turns which was fun too. Overall, I really enjoyed the biking and I was glad to be safe. But being me, I chose to try the difficult trail next. The ski lift was closed for few minutes due to lighting hazard. A fellow biker told us about the next difficult trail and we chose to do that. The trail was ok for some time and then it kept getting steeper and rockier. Deepak fell and injured himself quite a bit after which we were quite cautious. We walked the bike at very steep sections and avoided jumps. Not sure how, I fell sideways on a flat surface and lightly injured myself too. There was one last jump which I was hesitant given all the injuries but nonetheless made it. It was quite an adventure at the end of it.

Activity Overview

My other friends said they loved their ATV experience. After Pizza lunch, we left for Bryce NP. We chose to do navajo loop trail which starts and ends at Sunset point. This short 1.3 miles hike was extremely beautiful which took us close to Orange hoodoos. Almost entire trail was surrounded with various formations and I enjoyed the entire journey. There was especially on spot close to Sunset point where the closer hoodoos and father hoodoos looked like they belonged two different screens in-front of me. The panoramic views kept getting better as we rose higher and the evening colors were in play. The Sun was behind the clouds, so it was not so bright. We left for Brain Head after dinner and retired for the day.

Day 4 – Angel’s Landing 

My friends had understood the importance of starting early for the hike so this time they themselves were ready before me pushing for it. We checked out the place at around 5:15 AM and left for Zion NP. There weren’t much crowds this day since the long weekend was over. We took the shuttle and reached the trailhead for Angel’s Landing. Angel’s landing is rated as strenuous hike due to the elevation gain and exposed cliffs in the final section. We started with our hike and soon the group got dispersed. First 2 miles was paved but steep hike with decent views around. Actual fun started from the Scout’s lookout. There were chains from there on to help hikers traverse the narrow trail with 1000 ft drop on either sides. I should say that chains really helped and made the hike less terrifying.

There were many people and there were bottlenecks at places which delayed the ascent. I dropped my phone which cracked the screen. Instead of feeling bad, I concentrated on the unique exciting hike and the beauty all around. Slowly and steadily we made it to the summit and spent ample of time clicking photos. There was sheer drop at many of the places and the canyons, red mountains looked fantastic from the summit. We returned after spending around an hour. It had gotten very hot while we were returning. Alok and I washed ourselves in the river and relaxed our feet. After spending enough time at the park and finishing 2 of the most beautiful hikes, my love for Zion had returned. Somehow my watch acted weirdly on all the hikes and gave me wrong stats for the hike. So I wont be posting the activity overview for the hikes.

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We left for Las Vegas and boarded our respective flights. I was supposed to reach Seattle by 12:30 AM but I experienced a delay again due to a stupid reason. Apparently, the airlines had over-fueled the flight and were waiting for someone to come and defuel. Even after 2 hours, no one came, so they switched the flights. I was ok this time since I was extremely sleepy and I just slept through the delay. Before landing, I had a dream where in the flight attendants were bracing us for impact by shouting “head, head”. I was surprised that I wasn’t following the orders but realized that it was a dream. Anyways, we landed safely and it was 4 AM by the time I reached home. I have had issues with 4 of my last 6 flights.

Tips:

  • Narrows hike is an endurance hike and very doable. Make sure that you have waterproof socks and right shoes.
  • Start early for any hike in Zion during summer. The heat makes the hike double difficult.

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Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | 1 Comment

Symphony of the classical elements at Hawaii

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The symphony of the four classical elements – Fire, Air, Earth and Water at Hawaii felt surreal. I had always pictured Hawaii as something very calm, peaceful with beautiful green hills and beaches but my experiences were something more than that. It was like any other adventure trip for me. I chose to visit Big Island mainly because it gave the opportunity to see the lava and 3 others joined me. It was a crazy trip – we went from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in a single day, got close to hot lava, snorkeled above the beautiful reefs and sea life and a sensational encounter with whale shark which swam right below our boat. The rest of it was the usual Hawaii stuff which I had always imagined and heard of – beautiful green hills, beaches and sea side high mountains. So I didn’t feel that bad about not visiting Hawaii with a partner and kinda smiled away whenever asked why I chose to visit with friends.

After browsing through our calendars and based on the availability, we chose to make the trip on the Memorial day long weekend and bore the high expenses for flights and stay. We came up with a rough 4 day itinerary and it wasn’t until the last 5 days, things were finalized. I started making the bookings and at the same time was introduced to a common Hawaiian word, Aloha which is frequently used to greet people. I gave one final touch to the itinerary a day before leaving Seattle and was excited for the trip.I wanted to book a convertible car, but others felt it was too small for 4. So I ended up booking a standard SUV from Costco Rentals – apparently, Costco gave me the best rental prices. Ramanan and I flew from Seattle and Sai and Smitha from San Francisco. I would have loved if we had a day time ariel view, but it was dark by the time we reached Hawaii. The airport’s open roof architecture was quite interesting and I had already started loving the tropical weather. Also, I saw a guy wearing a cap reading ‘Make America Native Again’  which was quite funny but deep. Since we didn’t have car rental for the night, we took a taxi to the hotel and slept for the night. We stayed at Uncle Billy’s at Kona which was a decent place.

Day 1: Sea level to 13.5k+ feet

Due to jet lag, our body woke us up quite early in the morning and we got out for the day pretty early after having a basic breakfast at the hotel. Only rental cars from Harper were allowed to be taken on Mauna Kea summit, so we had booked a 4WD for first day from them. It was Toyota 4 Runner and an employee made a complete video of the car for proof before handing it over. The coverage had a deductible of $2500. So I ended up declining coverage for the very first time that too when I was supposed to take it on a gravel road at 10k+ feet altitude. The car itself was huge and it felt like sitting in a cockpit with many knobs. After shopping for essentials from Walmart, we started with our drive and saw volcanic rocks beside the road. Our first stop was at Hapuna beach – which lived upto its name of being one of the best beaches in Big Island. Clear waters, clean sand, green hills in the backdrop and subtle waves made the beach perfect for playing. Since it was morning and the beach was facing west we didn’t have Sun hitting our eyes. There was less crowd too. I wasn’t exactly prepared for getting into the water. So I came out after some time and started exploring the beach from the cliffs on the side. The whole beach looked stunning from the cliff and waves looked like curling jewels. We also flaunted our Hawaiian shirts for the entire day which we had bough from Walmart.

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We then drove along the serene coast with green tall hills on one side and turquoise waters on the other to reach Polulu Valley Lookout. En route we had our lunch at a small town and got a taste of local food. I didn’t enjoy much mine since it was just sticky rice, Tofu and Coconut sauce. From the lookout, we took a short hike to the beach. I was extremely happy at the sight of high cliffs rising from the shore since that was what a typical Hawaii was for me. More cliffs were visible as we descended and the view kept getting better. The beach was filled with stones and it was dangerous to get in but the surrounding was a tranquil site. There were ropes tied on trees for swings and we had some fun playing.

It was time for the adventure part of the day and we first drove to Mauna Kea visitor center which was located at an altitude of 9k. We also encountered rains for a very short time. It was quite misty and there was a ranger guarding the route to the summit and he kinda looked serious about letting people through. On asking he mentioned that he would allow only AWDs and he gave a glance at the mountain and asked us to be safe. I had initially planned to stay for an hour acclimatizing, but wanted to get pass the ranger before he changed his mind. So we added layers quickly and left for the summit. I had forgotten the steps to engage 4WD and did it once Sai pulled the information from the net. The drive was much safer than expected with wide roads and also it was a very short drive. We reached the summit very quickly. It was a barren terrain without snow and there were huge telescopes all over the place. We had literally gone from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in few hours. The summit is considered to be one of the best place for space observatory. I had prepared for the cold and was quite comfortable. We roamed around the place and decided to wait for the sunset. As the Sun started painting the sky orange more vehicles poured in and the sky got clearer too. We chose a good spot for the car and waited to see the Sun getting drowned in the clouds. It looked like a red bowl was kept in the sea of clouds, somehow Sun didn’t appear to be in the edge of the horizon but amidst the clouds. It was the most surreal sunset I had ever seen. It was well worth the wait.

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We then drove to visitor center for Stargazing. There were smaller telescopes setup which were pointed at Jupiter and its moons. I recognized it from the red rings around it – had seen it earlier from the observatory at Cornell University. Then there was Laser guided star tour which was ok wherein I got to know few interesting facts. After drinking hot chocolate at the visitor centre we left for Kona and had dinner at Denny’s.

Day 2: Black Sand Beach and Lava tour

We returned the heavy duty 4WD car and got an AWD car from Alamo. It got quite late by the time we got ready and had breakfast at Ihop. We reached Black Sand Beach and got ready for getting into the water. The beach had black shiny sand and big rocks in the water was making it difficult to move around. There was a turtle close to the shore and unknowingly I got in contact with it once which was scary. We spent some time playing in the water by crawling over the rocks and reaching the deep beach. We saw some turtles on the land while heading back. We then left for Hawaii National Park. We had to get to the lava tour by 3:30 PM so we had time to visit only 1 attraction. I chose crater and glad I did. It was a huge crater and there was a smaller crater inside with fumes coming out of it. It looked like Crater lake without the water. We then left for lava tour.

I had contacted Cheryl, the co-organizer of pokeastick lava tour few days back and initially she said she is not doing the evening tour. Only after asking for the second time, she arranged her friend as a guide for the tour. I am so glad I asked her second time as this tour was the highlight of the trip for me. We got ready with the gear for the tour and the first part was a ride on the back of a pickup truck. The whole area is near a town named Kalapana. Lava has been flowing since 30 years around the area and enters the sea in the form of small falls from a short cliff. There is a access road to the beach and the public can either walk or bike the 4 mile stretch. We didn’t go to the beach but we headed for the hills in the west. We got down from the truck and starting walking. It was funny to see while one of the guy in the tour was all ready with bag with locks, torch holder, knife etc but Ramanan just had a plastic cover. We were making fun of this the entire trip. Our guide, Christine told Ramanan that gear didn’t look realistic and asked to hand over the belongings to others. We were surrounded with solid lava which had flattened the area since 1987. It was basically a combination of sand and glass and we were very careful to avoid rough contact. The previous week I was in the snowfield at Silver peak and here I was at lavafield. The vast expanse and fumes blowing looked otherwordly. Steadily we reached closer to the hills where lava was flowing. It was first time for me and I was psyched at the view of looking at red lava. Christine took us away from the crowd to a different flow location. Not sure if this was good idea since we saw more of surface flow here opposed to vertical flow on the hills. Nonetheless I got high looking at the lava and was jumping all around. We walked over the cracks, got close to the oozing lava and walked on hot surface. Even with the hiking shoes, I could feel the hear in my feet. The lava was close to 700 deg C and we got close to it in bursts to avoid getting roasted. As it got darker, we saw more red lava below and around us which was fantastic. This was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.

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We started the return hike before it got too dark but we kept seeing people reaching the hills even in the dark. As it got more dark, we saw the Crescent moon in the sky and more red lava on the mountains. It was a great sight. The hike was around 9+ miles and it took quite some time to reach the truck. We took our car and then drove back to Kona. En route we were hit with heavy rains at Hilo – the wettest place in US (not Seattle you see) and drove in the mist on the saddle road. We had dinner at Denny’s and had a short sleep.

Day 3: Snorkeling, rugged coast ride and whale shark sighting

After a light breakfast, we left early for the snorkeling tour. We got in a small raft boat around 9 AM and started with the ride for snorkel locations. We were around 13 of us and I was surprised to see Jessmine on the boat. I had hiked with her the previous week in PNW and we were on a big hike the coming week. There were few others from Washington too. I didn’t expect this trip to include anything be more than snorkeling but I was so so wrong. The ride to snorkel locations was a rough bumpy ride along the coast. We snorkeled at 3 different spots. At the first one, we were given the basic training and the gear was pretty solid and good. I chose to get into the water with just mask and fins. I was quite comfortable navigating and found some amazing spots where sea-life thrived. I could spot more animals on the reefs at lower depths and yellow fish was abundant. After 45 mins we got back to the boat and I started feeling nauseous. I am unsure if it was due to the bumpy ride or due to elongated mouth breathing. We were taken to sea caves and lava tubes before reaching the remote second spot. I couldn’t enjoy much due to the sickness. I forced burped myself and almost puked once. We rode close to rugged coast and saw amazing arches and beautiful rock formations. I slowly got better but the whale shark incident changed me a lot I guess. While going to the third location, someone radioed saying that there was a whale shark sighting at the bay close to us. Our organizer got very excited with the news and chose to chase it. We couldn’t see it even after minutes of scouting and waiting. Later the organizer decided to take us 3rd spot before the time ran out since it was considered the most beautiful snorkel location in the whole state. This was near Captain Cook monument and I should agree, it was the best spot. I saw more variety of sealife here and it was sensational. I was feeling much better by then and explored the area. On all the three spots, turtles surfaced right after people were done with the snorkel. We were treated with food and Hawaiian stories by the guides once on the boat. The climax awaited us. We were returning to the base while we saw a small boat with people who pointed to us that a whale shark was right near us. We fervently searched for it and something unexpected happened. The 20 foot shark swam right below our boat and I got goosegumps even while writing this. It slowly moved from one side to the other and people started jumping into the water to get a better sight. Its a vegetarian and known not to hurt people. But no one could see from the water as the shark swam away quickly. I couldn’t get into the water since I was not ready with my gear but I saw the shark with its white spotted dots from the boat and was taken aback. The whole thing looked so scripted and we were so fortunate as the guide mentioned that in her 11 years of the job, this was the first time she saw a whale shark. We had to get back as there was another tour scheduled.

We returned to the room and slept the entire evening. It was a much needed sleep after 2 and half days of adventure. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant and walked the downtown area and retired for the day.

Day 4: Waterfalls and high valley

Day 4 was typical Hawaii stuff with visits to waterfalls, valley lookout and beach. Akoka waterfalls looked stunning in the green forest and Waipio valley was breathtaking too. Waipio valley also has the highest waterfalls in the Unites Stated which can be reached after a days hike or through helicopter ride.

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We drank coconut water nearby and saw peacock from very close and it shook its feathers frequently in an effort to impress the hens. We drove to Hapuna beach again and I couldn’t comfortably enjoy the beach since Sun was directly hitting the eye. I played with sand for sometime and then left for airport. The evening Sun transformed into Red Circle and it was a soothing end for the trip.

 

It was a fantastic experience which included adventures and beauty. We experienced hot lava, green hills, turquoise waters and an amazong sunset I would recommend visiting Big Island if you want to avoid crowd and have a diverse trip.

More Photos and videos here

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Journey through West Colorado

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We summited the mountains,
We saw through deep lakes,

We basked in the sunlight,
And stars did we gaze,

We rode on the Cog Rail,
We drove through the states,

We awed at the river,
And desert did we embrace,

We hiked amidst canyons,
We probed into caves,

We blossomed our friendship,
And fears did we face,

We wish we could stay longer,
Colorado, you never cease to amaze!

Two of my friends wrote this poem at the end of the trip. I was amazed not at the poem itself but at the trip which inspired them to come up with this. We drove in a mini-bus, rode the Gondola, hiked to a beautiful lake, climbed on cliffs, rolled down on sand dunes, chugged to 14k summit in a train, cycled down the same, dived at 3Gs into the canyon, ducked into the caves all in 4 days at Colorado. This was a fantastic trip where we experienced many things, where each one of us became a child again, had so much fun and got closer to each other.

We were planning to visit Florida but somehow I wasn’t feeling that plan wouldn’t work out especially since the visit included many theme parks during holidays. It was a good decision to pass Florida as later we learned about Zika breakout and inclement weather. We decided Colorado and I charted out a plan covering most of the west Colorado. We did the bookings not too early and excited for the trip, we waited for Labor day weekend. We were 9 of us including my team-mate and a friend’s mother, so we booked a 15 seater van.

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Day 0:

We all flew to Denver on Friday night and at first I was quite intimidated at the size of the van or as others called super shuttle/mini bus. I was like, it would be great if we pulled off the trip without any issues while driving. Owing to the empty roads in the night, it didn’t take much time to get used to it. We drove to Estes park near Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) late in the night and stayed at a hotel to get few hours of sleep.

Day 1 – Rocky Mountain National Park :

We were pretty much roaming the RMNP till late afternoon. After parking the van at a RV/bus designated spot, we took the shuttle to Bear Lake Trailhead. There was a group of kids in the shuttle and they were having a gala time singing loudly. Along the way we saw beautiful high mountains all around. The trail around the Bear lake was very easy but the lake was very clear and the surroundings looked stunning. Especially the green patches and the majestic mountains made the lake all the more picturesque. I was surprised at how detailed the trail was mentioned with details like %age grade, etc. We then picked our van and started driving on the trail ridge stopping at various view points.

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The high mountains and the valleys reminded me of my visit to Himachal Pradesh in India. I hadn’t seen many 8k feet+ tall mountains in large number in US before and I think barring Alaska, Colorado is unique in this aspect which has number of 14ers. One of them, Long Peak was in sight for most of the morning. We didn’t do any other hikes for the day and drove to Glenwood springs in the evening. The last 20 miles of the drive was through Glenwood canyon and it was one of the best scenic drives I have had. Colorado river cut through the canyon along with an interstate and railway track beside it. The red canyons in the evening time looked amazing and gave a feel of Zion National park. On reaching Glenwood springs, we noticed a Gondola and took a ride to Glenwood Caverns adventure park. Since it was late in the evening most of it was closed. I wanted to try at-least the alpine coaster. I didn’t know about this park while planning and it was quite a miss. We went to sleep early since we had to leave very early next morning to find a parking spot at the Hanging lake trailhead which was 20 miles away.

Day 2 – Hanging Lake:

Even though we left at around 7:30 AM after the breakfast, we saw the sign on the interstate that the parking was full at the trailhead. Given that it was Sunday and a long weekend this wasn’t surprising. Nonetheless, we drove to the parking lot and the rangers accommodated some 15 cars to be in the waiting line and fortunately we were one among them. We had just made in time. We waited for 1.5 hours before we got a spot and started our hike to Hanging lake. The trail ascends 1000 ft in 1.2 miles. It wasn’t terribly steep but still a moderate hike for a beginner. Most of my friends except one found it quite comfortable and went ahead maintaining decent pace. I stayed back with the last person and kept motivating her for almost the entire hike. The trail crossed a creek multiple times and ascended to hanging lake surrounded by some nice views. The lake itself is not so big and kind of cute. We could see fishes in the clear water with greenish hue. Water dripped into the lake via multiple small falls and these drops looked like jewels in the bright Sun. Though, it was quite crowded, the place radiated peace and it was one of a kind.

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We hiked up to see a slightly bigger water falls which came out of the mountain. We could go behind the waterfalls and it was a nice experience as well. We hiked back after some time and had lunch at an Indian restaurant at Glenwood springs. The next stop was at Mesa Verde National Park and it was a long ride in the evening. As we got closer to Utah border, the terrain changed into that of desert and we could see barren mountain-canyons. The van had 5 rows of seats including the driver’s. We had put our luggage on the last one and food on part of the 4th row. So whoever sat in 4th row was called as food manager and that person was responsible for distributing the food to all. Sai, usually being the ultimate food lover, was called Bhattre and Smitha was called Su-Bhattre. Since Aiswarya had a spotify account, was the DJ for the trip. She would take requests from others and play the songs. Akhil, Lisha and I managed the driving part. Almost everyone had a role to play and it’s always fun to travel with this group which is why we have been going out almost every long weekend. Since it was Ganesh Chaturthi, even after being careful about not seeing the moon, some of us saw it including me. We had dinner at an amazing Mexican restaurant which had good food and people. We reached Cortez quite late in the night so couldn’t go to the visitor center to get the tickets for the tour.

Day 3 – Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes National Park :

I got ready early and went to visitor to get the tickets for the ranger tour. The amount of positive energy these rangers radiate is impressive. I was few minutes early before the doors opened, but still there was a ranger outside the door handing out some booklets and answering our questions. We got the tickets for 1 PM tour. Mesa Verde National park consists the sites of numerous cliff dwellings of ancestral Pueblo people who stayed there from 6th to 12th century AD.  The dwellings were high in the mountain so we drove gaining good amount of elevation. We roamed around visiting museums and viewpoints till afternoon. It was interesting to see that the average age of people visiting was over 40. One of our friends had misplaced the phone in a washroom and we got it back from the museum reception. Even though it was an iPhone, someone was nice hand it to lost and found. At the gift store, I bought a new cap which said “National Park Service” celebrating its centennial year.

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We had FryBread at a stall which was named “Indian food” and co-incidentally it was like Batura from the “Real India”. It was time for the tour and went near a cliff dwelling called Balcony house. Here there was a trash bin which needed some maintenance and wearing the NPS cap, Lohith and I fixed it. We met the ranger soon with other 40+ people who were all ready for the next adventure. The ranger named Jackey was funny and gave us some information about the place. We walked beside the cliff and reached a place where we had to climb a tall ladder to get into Balcony house. The house was made of bricks and contained multiple rooms, balcony overlooking he valley and a well like structure called Kiva. It was interesting to see the blackened ceiling which was caused due to the fires used for cooking/household. To get from one house to another, we had to go through small tunnels and we had to crawl through the final tunnel to get out of the houses. Once outside we had to climb the not so vertical cliff face using the railings. It was a fun experience knowing the place and moving around like Pueblos. I was glad to see everyone being a sport and actively participating in the tour. We were behind the schedule and I was doubtful if we could make to next place for the day, which was Great Sand Dunes national park. Some of us really wanted to visit that so without much delay we left for the park. It was a long drive again and we played questionnaire about interests/hobbies and listened some interesting answers. Just when the trip was turning into just another one, the next 1.5 days changed the course and face of the trip.

We reached the Great San Dunes National Park by late evening and the Sun just set behind the sand dunes before even we parked the van but still there was plenty of daylight. We parked the van and kind of dashed to the dunes. There was a flat open space between the dunes and the lot and the dunes rose as high as 750 feet across a mile. It was stunning to see those dunes beside the tall green mountains. The fun had just begun, everyone started climbing a small dune and went back to childhood. They were getting crazy and explored the place like a kid. I rolled down the dune, did a somersault, someone crawled up, gave poses, it was nice to see everyone enjoying the beautiful evening. We could see people climbing all the way till the top. The sky turned into orange, then dark and stars slowly started appearing. We were sort of lit by the Crescent moon.

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We realized we could star gaze and waited for more stars to appear. In no time, we could see Milky way and everyone was mesmerized by the shining stars above us. It started getting cold and we decided to head back. While walking back amidst the surreal sand dunes lit by the crescent moon, I felt like I was exploring some planet in the universe. We dusted the sand from our clothes but kept the cherish-able memories and drove to Manitou Springs for the night.

Day 4 – Pike’s Peak and Cave of the Winds:

More elevation and adventures were lined up for the last day. We took the Pike’s Peak Cog railway – the highest train in the US – to reach the summit of at 14,110 feet. The rail consisted of red bogies high windows on either side. TC was on the mike giving information about the flora and fauna. The most impressive part for me was the way the rail handled the incline. The bogies were slant and did an incredible job in chugging taking the passengers up. The higher we went, we were treated with panoramic views. The wind started blowing heavily from 12000 feet and we had to close the windows. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride to the summit but it was only half the journey. There was snow at the summit and we spent some time looking at the surroundings.

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My cap flew off to an edge and just for the sake of thrill, I risked my safety to get it. A person was cheering for me all the time while I got the cap safely. Lohith and I had decided to cycle down the peak while others chose to go down the same way. Our rental cycles and guides were waiting for us with mountain bikes. I wore double gloves, layered up myself and was all excited to cycle. We started down the winding roads amidst the breathtaking scenery. The wind was so strong that it was literally pushing the cycle during the hair-pin curves. It was a fantastic sight to see the fellow cyclists making the curves on the smooth highway which gave a feel of Tour De France to me.

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I was enjoying every moment of the ride and by the time we reached lower elevation roads got less windier and we picked up super fast speeds topping at 45 mph. Some of us were vocal and were making weird sounds which kept the atmosphere lively. We took around 1.5 hours covering 20 miles and lost 6700 feet in elevation. This was one of the best adventures I have done yet. I would like to recall some of the scenes during the ride: sight of a cyclist on the high mountain road in the middle of panoramic view, sight of cyclists making the hair pin curves on the dark tar road with brown terrain on the side, sight of cyclists with the tall peaks and forest in the background – simply spectacular. I forgot the same cap at the cycle rental shuttle which I had dared to get from the edge on the summit .

Our next set of attraction was at the Cave of the winds. First, Lohith and I went for adventure ride called Terror Dactly. This ride is perched 200 feet above Williams Canyon, and the riders would be launched off of the cliff’s edge, at almost 100 miles an hour like a pendulum. I had seen the videos and expressions of the people looked horrifying. I was scared but excited to try it. During the preparation for the launch, I double checked my safety belt, and got ready for the adrenaline looking at the depth below me. As soon as we were launched, the rush was unbelievable and I started screaming involuntarily. The first 2-3 seconds was somewhat like in a free fall accelerating with 3Gs. We swung to the other end and we were between the valley. As the description on the website says, “Prepare to scream, laugh and love every second of this adventure!” I did exactly the same – the scream turned into laughter and I loved it. The camera attached to the ride had captured all our expressions and I couldn’t wait to see them.

Our friends had joined by then and since there was no line, the ride master asked us if we wanted to try the ride again so that our friends could see. We happily agreed and faced the terror again. Soon 4 of my other friends tried too and all waited for the videos. The video guy finished editing everyone’s video and called us for the screening. We were ROFLing looking at each other’s expressions.

We then headed for lantern tour in the caves. In this tour each one of us carried a lantern while we made our way through dark narrow pathways in the caves located in the hills. A guide was touring us with a ghost story as backdrop. He would make sudden loud voices and tried to scare people with some tricks. The cave was so low sometimes that we had to duck and go for some distance. The floor was damp and we could see stalagmites at some places. It was quite an experience. We finished the tour and then drove to the last place of the tour – Garden of the Gods. It was a nice park with unusual red rock structures protruding from Earth. We spent some time there and left for the Denver airport.

Colorado being a beautiful state, hosted us with tons of opportunities for adventures, sight seeing and other experiences. Yet another fantastic tour came to an end but we amassed crazy memories. As always, looking forward for the next long weekend trip.

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Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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

Polar Express? Na, Ford Escape to Leavenworth

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Every year, around the time of Christmas, Leavenworth hosts tree lighting festival. We delayed our visit to make sure we attend the same in the snow and decided to visit on Dec 19. Fortunately, weather forecast predicted snow on 19th. I chose to take the scenic Highway 2 and WSDOT recommended snow chains/AWD for the drive. After my recent snow driving experience at Yosemite where I drove with snow chains, this time I wanted to try an all wheel drive and I made sure to book it before hand. It was a Ford Escape which provided us fun, exciting and a safe ride.

I, along with 4 other Cornell/Amazon friends, started at around 10.30 AM. After having brunch at Bothell Gurudwara we hit Highway 2 to begin our scenic ride. We were soon spellbound by the snow covered tall mountains along the route. Even though I had been on a snow drive just last month at Yosemite, I was equally mesmerized to see the snow covered mountains and trees. We decided to take a short break at a town to enjoy the scenery around us. We walked to the bridge which stood on a greenish river and wondered about the setting of the town amidst such beauty. After some time we started the drive again.

I drove on the streets of the town to get back to the highway but something scary happened here which helped me drive safely throughout the trip. Unaware of the capacity of traction I was negotiating a turn at quite a speed. This is when I lost control on steering. The car skid to the right and then to the left before getting under control again. Fortunately there were no other cars on the road and it wasn’t a major skid; it however taught me a lesson. After that I drove on the snow with utmost caution. The next 20-30 miles were hilly and covered with heavy snow. I drove carefully, mimicking other vehicles. Other vehicles either had snow chains or were AWDs or driving extremely slowly. Some vehicles zoomed past us and we wondered how were they able to pull it off. Although quite apprehensive at first, I found the drive exciting.  We saw people skiing at Steven’s Pass and the mountain looked quite steep. Every driven mile increased my confidence and I was able to pick up speed and pass other vehicles. During single lane, a slower car would usually delay number of vehicles behind it which in a way was good by keeping everyone’s speed at check.

It was around 2:30 PM, by the time we reached Leavenworth and fortunately we found a parking spot at P4, right across the front street where the tree lighting was supposed to happen. There was snow all around and it was quite cold. Ithaca had taught me well to dress for cold and I was well prepared with layered clothing, cap, gloves, woolen socks and snow shoes. It was a very lively and fascinating atmosphere. The town itself was nestled between the tall snow covered mountains. The streets were lined with Bavarian styled shops and restaurants. There was snow all around and families were having fun time with kids sliding on board from higher areas. Christmas, a family festival was so evident here. Some people had dressed in costumes like angels and Santa. While my friends chose to go to a restaurant, I took stroll admiring the happenings and the architecture. I entered a shop called Kris Kringl which had numerous Christmas decoration items which looked shiny and cute. I liked the snowbabies the most.

After roaming for a while, I went to a nearby waterfront park along with a friend. It was a downhill to the river and people(adults) were sliding and it was fun watching them. There was a broken plastic slide laying around and I slid cheerfully and ended up breaking it into more pieces. I enjoyed being in the fresh snow and somehow felt being home. During my visit to California, i thought it was nice to have sunny weather but realized I like variations. After spending some time along the river admiring golden lights on houses we decided to go back to the front street. We choose to take shortcut instead and ended up climbing a 70-80 deg elevation which reminded me of final ascent in the Himalayas at Rupin Pass. It was around 4:30 PM and we unknowingly had made it to the front street just before tree lighting where everyone were eagerly waiting for the lights. There was a big Christmas tree with lights and decorations around it. After a countdown, first shops and restaurants were lit and then number of other trees. Apparently there were half a million lights, but it didn’t seem so. With the snow covered mountains in the background, lights all around and smiles on people, the town looked amazing. We entered a candy shop and had a delicious hot chocolate fudge. For the first time I was happy that it was dark so soon as we could see the lights and leave for Seattle soon.

My friends decided to take I-90 instead for the drive back. We took Highway 97 first and then hit I-90. There was even more snow on road and heavy snow fall to make things more exciting. I could see the heavy snow bombarding on the windshield which reduced the visibility to say 50-100 mts. We saw number of accidents on I-90 and the recommended speed was 35 mph. Steering wheel was literally shaking under my hands. We could see some cars skidding and going slowly. Holding our breath we covered the distance carefully and quite swiftly. It was one of the most interesting and exciting drives I have had. After driving a Mini Cooper previous week, I found the Ford Escape much more comfortable. With each mile I drove westwards, we felt a gradual rise in temperature from the initial -1C. There was no snow a few miles from Bellevue. We had dinner at Kanishka Cuisine and headed back to Seattle.

My experiences reminded me of the movie Polar Express and I had really loved it (By the way I wrote this post while watching it).

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