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Published: November 8th 2018
Colorado River below the Hoover Dam
Here's why you should make an effort to talk to as many people as possible at conferences. Thanks for the kayaking trip David and Blanche.
It’s fair to say that the US trip exceeded our expectations. That’s because, foolishly, expectations were not that high. Whenever the US appears on the news these days it seems to be because King Trump has said something offensive, there’s been a high-school massacre, or the police have killed an unarmed black man. Well, I can confirm that we weren’t shot at once and we only saw one person in 2.5 weeks sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat. We (that is, the rest of the world) generally state that Americans should travel more so they would be more open minded, but it took us to travel there for us to be more open minded about them. Which was ridiculous really as I have lots of best pals from the US who I have met while living in various parts of the world. But they were the ones that travel. Turns out the ones who stay at home can actually be really nice too. In fact, they can be overwhelmingly generous and hospitable.
A conference, Magdalena’s this time, took us to Washington DC. We fell into a nice routine of M going off to her conference each day and me
working from home till lunchtime. Then I cycled around the lake, through the woods, over the river, to the conference venue at the University of Maryland. I would have lunch in some little café before finding another café to work from for a bit, then I snuck into the conference and worked from there. Dinner was an often-disappointed quest to find something that contained vegetables – a feature of the trip.
We gave ourselves a few days to look around DC, and it was alright. The enormous museums could be interesting but were let down by fierce air-con that had us scrambling back outside into the warm sun long before we’d had the chance to see everything.
When deciding what to do with the additional week we would reward ourselves, nearby attractions of Philadelphia and New York were not so thrilling to us that like all things nature-related. The appeal of the USA had always been its landscapes but for that we would have to head west. Consequently, we found ourselves on a flight to Las Vegas – a city against everything I stand for in terms of its carbon and water footprints and reputation for being a
A friend we made in Sedona
Never have we jumped so high, screamed so loud and run so fast as when we rounded a corner and this was rattling in the path.
boozing, gambling, Elvis-marrying tacky spot. However, Vegas sits very close (in American distances) to some spectacular scenery. What’s more, on the final night of our whole trip when we actually went into Vegas rather than just landing at the airport, picking up a hire car and immediately exiting the city; I quite liked it.
We had nine days in which we drove 1600 miles and visited eight national parks/monuments. Accommodation was either in extremely nice AirBnBs that we had booked in advance or horrible roadside motels that we hadn’t. These “death” motels, so christened as they looked just like the places where people get murdered in films, are surprisingly expensive – as was travelling around the US as a whole. The only thing that’s cheap is fuel; good job when the distances are so huge.
A review of the places we visited: Red Cliffs National Conservation Area
We only went here as we were staying nearby and we wanted to stretch our legs after the 5-hour flight to Las Vegas and then the 3-hour drive out of Las Vegas. It was quite pretty, we eventually found the dinosaur footprints just as it
started pouring with rain, thankfully some friendly north Utah folk (who showed us the dinosaur footprints after we had stepped right over them and were looking elsewhere) gave us a lift back to the car. Zion National Park
Get there early is our advice. A shuttle bus takes you into the canyon from the huge but full car parks and the canyon is busy. However, you don’t need to walk far beyond the named trails to leave everyone behind. The reason for so many people? It’s really beautiful. Up on the West Rim Trail, and East Rim Trail the following day, we saw very few people. West Rim Trail has the advantage of walking in and amongst great scenery whereas the East Rim hike to Cable Mountain from the East Gate is less interesting but rewards you with an awesome (in the true sense of the word) view at the end. The reason for going on two consecutive days were that our Bryce Canyon plans were curtailed due to snow! In October! The weather for the whole trip was apparently 12C below average for the time of year but it was still always warm enough to
Stumbled across a Latin American street parade. The Bolivians seemed to be having the most fun.
hike in shorts. We just had to hike fast as we didn’t bring any warm clothes.
Grand Canyon North Rim
Controversially, despite Grand Canyon being obviously spectacular, I think we were more blown away by the view of Zion Canyon from Cable Mountain than we were by the Grand Canyon. Perhaps because Zion involved a lot of effort whereas the Grand Canyon you just drive to the edge. What’s more, the Grand Canyon is already familiar from countless films, documentaries, photographs, posters, billboards, etc, whereas Zion Canyon was new to us. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still spectacular. Actually, it grew on me the more we walked the Widforss trail that follows the edge. The best bit being the very end of the trail where we kept going for an extra kilometre to find a much better than the official viewpoint.
One of the highlights was the drive from Kanab to the North Rim. The snow that had prevented us from going to Bryce Canyon was still present as we drove across the highlands to the Grand Canyon. Dark green pines were interspersed with yellow or red leafed birch and alder all with
Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Park
I'd always thought this was the Grand Canyon. It ain't.
a dusting of white. The early morning sun pierced the trees at a low angle illuminating the rising mist from the sublimation of the snow. It was like driving into Narnia.
You’ll be very familiar with this from motivational desktop wallpapers and the like. I had always thought it was the Grand Canyon but in planning this trip I discovered it was indeed the Colorado River but in Glen Canyon National Park. Thus, we struck it off our places to visit. However, when in Kanab and planning the next couple of days drive, we discovered it was outside the main bit of Glen Canyon National Park and we would drive right past it when we stayed in Page.
The signs in the car park are laughable; warning you to properly prepare for the “hike” with at least a bottle of water each, suitable footwear, sun cream, etc. Horseshoe Bend is about 800 m from the car park! As expected it’s full of selfie sticks and people doing yoga poses on overhanging ledges while their pal takes a photo then switching positions. Despite all that – it is stunning.
I really wanted to see Monument Valley, it being probably as iconic and recognisable as the Grand Canyon. I was disappointed to learn that there was only a single short hiking path and touring the famous buttes and mesas was done on a “scenic drive”. The Wildcat Trail is a 5 km “hike”. Again, ignore the warning signs telling you how strenuous it is; it’s largely flat. Despite the trail beginning at the busy visitor centre of which you never lose sight, it is little walked so you really do leave all the people behind. It can never be more than a kilometre or so from the scenic drive but you neither hear nor see the road and feel like you have Monument Valley to yourself. It’s thoroughly recommended. We did the drive as well, testing the ground clearance of our hire car as it is only recommended for 4x4s. The drive is nice too, but I preferred the part on foot.
Canyon de Chelly
There were two reasons for visiting Canyon de Chelly. Firstly, I thought I should go to some ancient native American site while I was here; after
all, that is the history of this continent. Secondly, it was a long drive from Monument Valley to anywhere around the south side of the Grand Canyon and we needed somewhere to break that journey. Canyon de Chelly ticked both boxes. Again, you can drive to most of it; a road follows the rim with car parks at view points, and there is only a single hike that you can do into the canyon without having a Navajo guide. The canyon was very pretty seen from the view points as we dodged the rain by trying to time the drives during the showers. The sun came out suddenly, so we took advantage by setting off down the “White House Trail”. The blue sky and sunshine meant any photos taken between the earlier showers could be discarded as now the colours of the sandstone really stood out. It’s only a few-kilometre hike, zig-zagging down the bare rock then crossing the flat sandy canyon base to the ruins. A fence prevents you getting too close, which is a shame as it would be nice to climb up the cliff and get a feel for the place. A few Navajo are there selling
homemade jewellery and paintings on wood and rocks.
Red Rock State Park – Sedona
We ventured this far south on a hunt for some warmer weather. And it was lovely. A bit of internet research led us to the Munds Wagon Trail – Hangover Trail – Cow Pies Trail. Despite the town being busy, and the trailhead car park being full of artists and easels, the trails were largely empty. A few very loud cicadas had me peering into the bushes to check if they were rattlesnakes. Magdalena laughed at me saying “there are no rattlesnakes here are there?”. A few kilometres later, right next to the path… It’s the highest I’ve ever jumped, the loudest I’ve squealed, and the fastest I’ve ever covered 20 metres.
Grand Canyon South Rim
We would have a long drive to almost Las Vegas in the afternoon so we were looking for something to do for 2/3 of a day from Flagstaff. After considering Sedona again, a few more Navajo ruins and a meteorite crater, we decided that as we were only an hour and half from the Grand Canyon South Rim
Zion Canyon from Cable Mountain
This might have been my favourite spot on the trip.
it would be daft not to go there. And we already had the $35 entrance ticket after visiting the North Rim. South Rim was more the classical view of the canyon and again was extremely impressive. Rather than hiking along the rim we hiked down into it a bit. The popular South Kaibab Trail goes all the way to the canyon bottom but we only went a few kilometres from great viewpoint to great viewpoint knowing that every extra step we would have to climb back up later. The ascent was easier than we anticipated – I guess we had got pretty fit on this trip.
It’s always worth schmoozing with as many people as possible at conferences. Occasionally they invite you over to stay. When people do that, I often actually show up. Hence, we found ourselves with David and Blanche in Boulder City, just outside Las Vegas. We hadn’t considered what we might do on our last full day; it turned out to be one of the best days of the trip. Our hosts were overwhelmingly generous and were well-equipped for all local outdoor pursuits. Two cars full of kayaks
National Mall, Washington DC
One of the many times I felt like I was in a film.
headed to the Colorado River downstream of the Hoover Dam and we had half a day paddling up the canyon. It was lovely. We were very lucky to glance up twice and catch glimpses of a bighorn sheep and a bald eagle.
To outdo themselves further, David and Blanche decided we couldn’t be so close to Vegas without experiencing it (we weren’t that fussed). Thus, they bought us tickets and took us to see Cirque de Soleil in the Bellagio. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
We will be back. Probably as part of another conference or workshop visit. Next time we fancy Yosemite, Yellowstone and Redwoods. Or maybe Alaska as we’ve realised we like our mountains without having to share them with other “humans”.
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