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Published: December 16th 2013
At the self check-in machine of Frontier airlines, I was a bit surprised to see a $50 cost for my carry on luggage. Checking in that small suitcase would cost me $25! A recent change in policy, perhaps to counter the lower priced flight tickets on flight search engines like Kayak or Orbitz. I remember checking Frontier website when I booked the ticket on Orbitz and it was showing a costlier ticket. So now you get penalized for booking anywhere other than flyfrontier.com! I thought I got a relatively good deal in Kayak when I booked the ticket for the Thanksgiving week when the prices are always high. By the end of the trip, I ended up paying extra $100 for the ease of having a carry-on luggage!
After a stopover at Denver, I found myself in the queue for car rental at Hertz at their Las Vegas airport location. I was directed to a machine with a phone and a video monitor showing the Hertz guy! The process was quick and I was off to Death Valley area in a blue Chevy Cruz.
I reached Longstreet Inn and Casino, a hotel, casino and a
restaurant. A band was playing. There were more players in the band than the number of people watching them! But I liked this place better than the supposedly haunted Amargosa Opera house, some 7 miles south, where I had stayed during my previous trip to the Death Valley.
Using the jet lag to my advantage, I went to bed early and woke up well before sunrise. Reached Zabriskie point before sunrise. There were already 10-15 people there. I guess these people were staying in Furnace Creek Inn or Furnace Creek Ranch which are nearby. If you are willing to pay some extra bucks and reserve months in advance, Death Valley does have some accommodations within the park.
Later I visited the Death Valley attractions including Golden Canyon, Badwater salt flats, Devil's Golf Course and Artist's drive. Saw, what I thought was, a coyote on the road. I wondered how it survives the Death Valley scorching temperatures during summer. The lunch was a bit of a problem but I managed to find a veggie burger at Corkscrew Saloon at the Furnace Creek area! Later in the evening, I reached Mesquite dunes near Stovepipe Wells area.
Well, the parking lot was almost full and there were bunch of people walking over the dunes. Walking on those dunes had become a bit easier due to recent rains. Not much photo opportunities due to people and their footprints. I took some 'been there,seen that' shots and made my way back to the hotel, some one hour drive away. I thought of looking at the night sky after dark but could not muster enough enthusiasm or courage to wait till complete darkness, in the middle of nowhere. I wonder how the night sky in a national park like Death Valley would compare to the ones I used to see as a kid back in India while sleeping on roof tops.
Next day too I started early, making my first stop at 20 Mule Team Canyon. The trail head is just before Zabriskie point if coming from the east. The dirt road was closed so I walked. And walked. This place has some history related to mules and borax mining. Warnings were posted to not venture beyond the dirt road as there could still be some unexploded dynamite buried in that area. After walking along this badland
Coyote Buttes South
area for over two hours in the early morning hours, I drove back to the Badwater area. Lunch at Badwater Saloon in Stovepipe Wells. A big basket of Nachos with veggies and loads of cheese. The last stop of the day was Zabriskie Point again, this time during the evening. I hiked down the overlook into the valley. The landscape looked beautiful after sunset. I was not sure if my camera or my limited skills with it was doing any justice to what lay before my eyes.
I drove back from the desolation of Death Valley to the glitter of Las Vegas. Mandalay Bay was my choice of stay. A strip view room provided a nice view of the vegas strip. Large bathroom, cozy bed. Vegas has some of the largest hotels in the World and the good thing is that many of them are not costly.
Next day I tried 'Battlefield Vegas'. That is, firing real guns! Gave them a call around noon and the communication with the lady at the other end did not go smoothly. I expected her to ask questions and give me a good customer service experience! That was
not the case here. Maybe my Indian accent(maybe sounding Arab to her!) is what she was not expecting in a customer who is going to shoot some guns! This company sends a Humvee to pick up its customers from the strip hotels or at least that is what I had read in reviews. No Humvee pickup for me. The lady advised me to drive down to their location which I did. I had never shot a real gun before. I chose a package for about $160 that started with firing 10 rounds of a handgun called Glock 17. The experience is not like in the movies. The first blast just shook me. The noise was like a Diwali firecracker going off 5 feet from you. I was provided with ear and eye protection. After that handgun (I must confess I did not like it), I shot single rounds of MP5. This one was better. Shot the last 25 rounds in automatic mode, which was cool. Next up was a shotgun. Its recoil reminded me of Newtons's 3rd law of motion! I shot 5 rounds. I was glad that it was only 5 shells! Each one gave me a good jolt.
Final gun was a Remington 700 sniper rifle. I was surprised how accurate this one was. It has a scope, I zeroed in on bull's eye and managed to hit 3 out of 5 shots right in the center. The instructor asked, have you shot before? I said no. He said, you are kidding? I said no. I guess, most of the customers end up shooting good even if it is their first time and the instructor would be reacting the same way. Makes you feel like you could have been a Marine sniper! This activity is rated #1 in tripadvisor for Las Vegas. Says something about american obsession with guns!
The following day, I drove to Zion National park. On the way, I stopped over at the Valley of Fire state park. Having started well before sunrise, I managed to reach the park before sunrise. It is an hour's drive from Vegas. Beautiful red rock formations here. Worth a visit if you are in Vegas. Even though the park is photogenic, I had no clue about good spots for sunrise photos, so I just drove along the main scenic drive and had to settle for some
I arrived at Zion National park around evening. Retired at the Chalet motel in St George for the night. A good one hour drive from Zion park. I guess it makes sense to shell out some extra bucks and stay closer to the parks than drive in the dark. Next morning, I tried to arrive at Zion Overlook before sunrise. A 20 min hike to the overlook and sun had already risen, painting its light on the top parts of Zion cliffs. Rest of the canyon was in the shadow not making for a good photo op. I then made my way to visitor center from where I boarded a park shuttle to arrive at the Weeping rock trailhead. I had planned a long hike to the Observation Point. An ever ascending 4 mile trek to a point from where I could see the Zion canyon below. An alternative was to do a slightly shorter hike to Angel's Landing but having read about it and seen some videos of people doing this hike, I could not visualize myself doing it alone! You walk on a narrow ridge with more than 1000 ft vertical drops on
either side. The thrill factor makes it one of the most popular hikes in the park. But I settled for a more strenuous hike to the Observation Point. And it just went on and on. After more than 2000 ft elevation gain, I arrived at the Observation Point. The view of the valley was a bit obscured by the slanting rays of sun, casting shadows on one side of the canyon. The view would definitely be spectacular on a cloudy or a stormy day or perhaps during sunrise or sunset.
Earlier in the morning, I had seen a low tire pressure warning light come on. I filled some air before leaving for Zion. Now when I was leaving Zion, the warning light came back. Had to be a slow leak. I filled some air at the town of Hurricane and drove back to my hotel in St George. The problem was, this was Thanksgiving night. Nothing was open. No garage, no auto repair shop. Not even restaurants. So no veggie turkey after that long tiring hike! Next morning I had a tour booked from Kanab which was 75 min drive away. I called Hertz and the guy
advised me to get a replacement car next morning at 8:30. The tour next day was scheduled to start at 9:30. One option was to fill air in the tire and drive. Hertz guy warned against it. He said, if anything happens, I would be liable. I would have driven my car but I was not willing to risk it with a rental car. Besides, I would still have to get the tire fixed. Easier option was to get a new car but that entailed losing the depost money. I tried reasoning with the tour company guy but he was like 'I am not going to piss off 3 other people to make one person happy'. I could make it to Kanab 30 min late but the tour operator would have non of it.
Next morning, I drove to a small airport at St. George and got a Camry as a replacement car. The Indian representative at the Hertz desk tried blaming the low tire pressure on the weather! I said, it is just one tire and we are talking about losing at the rate of 1 psi an hour.
Anyway, with a new rental,
I drove back to Zion doing some more sightseeing of those massive sandstone cliffs.
In the afternoon, after a Subway sandwich (I end up finding Subway almost everywhere!), I drove towards the town of Page in Arizona. Before I could reach there, I saw a mass of dark clouds or fog roll in from the east. This cloud cover was to stay put for the next few days. Before reaching Page, I passed the office of another outfitter that does the same tours that I had missed the day before. On reaching my hotel in Page, I gave them a call and arranged for a tour of sandstone formations called the White Pockets. I canceled my reservation at Torrey near Capital Reef park and decided to extend my stay at Page by another day.
Next morning, I reached the office of this outfitter after driving 30 miles. Made a cash payment. A german couple was already there. The couple comes here every year! waited for another party of 2. Maximum people allowed on these tours is 5 and one guide. A car arrived. A couple of asian girls entered the office. I stepped out to get
my backpack. Minutes later, the lady owner came out apologizing saying that I'll not be able to make this tour! The reason, she mentioned, was a misunderstanding about number of people in that asian girls party. 3 girls had come instead of two and since they had reserved earlier, I was to be unceremoniously kicked out. Well she did mentioned that they had another tour the next day and that I could drive to Kanab and get a permit for South Coyote Buttes as there was a tour scheduled the next day going to Coyote Buttes South and the White Pockets area.
The whole area near Arizona, Southern Utah border, called the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, is an area studded with otherworldly sandstone formations. One such small area is called 'The Wave' in the North Coyote Buttes area. It has increasingly become famous among photographers and tourists alike. To preserve the area, Bureau of Land Management in Utah allows only 20 people in the area in a day. They have a permit system. For the Wave, there is a online lottery that you can book 4 months in advance. Only 10 slots are available per day. Remaining 10
slots are filled as walk-in permits by people who are in the area and who would like to visit the Coyoye Buttes area. I had tried the online lottery for the Thanksgiving week but no luck.
The google map left me on a side road nowhere near the BLM office or even near any building. So I checked their website and was able to arrive at the location around 9:30. At 9, they had already conducted the walk-in lottery for the Wave and about 200 people had turned up for just 10 slots! The permit I was after, for the South Coyote Buttes, was easy to obtain.
It requires a 4WD with high clearance to reach these areas as the road is sandy. After a storm, conditions can get treacherous. Once stuck, a tow can easily cost $1000! So this is not a place to venture out alone or in a rental sedan, as I saw the next day as soon as we hit the section of the road before which warnings were posted to not to enter the area without a 4WD drive. A sedan was stuck in knee deep sand. Our tour operator, Steve,
helped the couple out of the sand so that he could make way for our vehicle. We reached the South Coyote Buttes area which was covered in some fog. It was a bit chilly too. We walked around for a couple of hours or maybe more, soaking in the views of these strange looking sandstone formations before leaving the area to go to White Pockets.
The roads are not paved and deliberately so, to preserve the wilderness of the area. The whole day, I saw only 3 vehicles, one of which was the stuck couple! The White Pockets area is small so it does not take much time to navigate it. Plenty of photography opportunities here, though the weather we had that day - dark, low clouds and fog - did not lend itself to photos with good contrast and colors. Sunrise and sunset should be awesome here but for that you'll have to do a 24 hour tour with one of these operators that would include an overnight stay in the wilderness.
The tour finished around 5:15pm and it was already getting dark. I drove some 250 miles back to the glitter of Las vegas.
I had a couple of more nights to stay in Vegas before leaving. I stayed at Treasure Island.
I just strolled on the streets and inside the casinos, dueled with a slot machine and lost $20 in no time, saw dueling piano bar performances, watched people playing the slot machines. It is mostly a losing battle at the slot machines. But it is the easiest game you can play with your money. If you know blackjack, odds are much better. If you can read faces, try poker. If you don't gamble at all, you have buffets, expensive shows, glitzy shops and the hip night clubs. Vegas beckons the gambler and the tourist alike.
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